Immigration Reform Proposed, but Some Wonder, is It a Jewish Issue?
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Immigration Reform Proposed, but Some Wonder, is It a Jewish Issue?

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A recent call for immigration reform from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society is sparking debate over whether the issue, historically an important one for American Jewry, is still a priority for the community.

The call, issued in a June 3 resolution, has galvanized advocates who say that the Jewish community should support easier access to the United States, as well as opponents who say that — especially post- Sept. 11 — looser immigration standards may result in security threats to the Jewish community.

HIAS’ recent resolution laid out what the group considers a comprehensive plan, according to Gideon Aronoff, HIAS’ Washington representative.

HIAS called on the government to give undocumented workers the opportunity to earn legal status; to create temporary worker programs that protect immigrants’ labor rights; to expand existing preference systems for reunifying immigrant family members; and to screen and deport immigrants who pose a threat to national security.

But some critics who agree that immigration policy should be reformed say HIAS’ solution could put the American Jewish community in jeopardy by letting in potentially dangerous immigrants.

“We are enabling our enemies through this,” said Stephen Steinlight, former national affairs director at the American Jewish Committee and currently a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies and at the U.S. Institute for Strategic Study of South Asia.

“If the current immigration policy remains unreformed,” Jews “would be outnumbered by Muslims by the next census,” he said. “The number one danger facing the Jewish community is the present open immigration” — meaning lax oversight at borders — “because it will see to it that a community that hates us will outnumber us in the U.S. in numbers and money.”

Steinlight’s concern also extends to the Jewish state.

“When we lose America, Israel will lose its only friend,” he said.

The common perception is that the immigrant crisis is predominantly a Latino issue, but many in the Jewish community see immigration standards as a vital Jewish concern as well.

Jews’ interest in immigration law is based mainly on historical gratitude for their own entry into the United States and is informed by biblical and ethical motivations.

Post-Sept. 11, though, most discussion centers on whether lax immigration standards pose a threat to national security.

The latter was a strong impetus for HIAS’ resolution. The group felt “that it is in the long-term U.S. interest to address these issues with an additional emphasis on security,” Aronoff said.

Other reasons have less of a direct connection with Jewish issues, such as the more than 2,000 migrant workers who have died attempting to enter the United States from Mexico since 1998.

HIAS also cited a backlog of immigrants’ family members waiting to enter the United States, and the eight to 10 million immigrants at risk of exploitation in workplaces that pay them in cash and offer no benefits.

Steinlight acknowledges the historical reasons for allowing open immigration but denies their relevance today — and accuses Jewish communal leaders of failing to recognize the change.

“They operate by old standards that tell them that the most politically correct positions are the ones to take,” he said. “They are stuck in an unthinking response to this issue.”

Jewish organizations — including HIAS, the American Jewish Committee and B’nai Brith International — say they are attempting to balance the desire for a generous immigration policy with the need for heightened national security.

The goal is to “have a system in place that remains welcoming,” while allowing the United States “to police its borders and assure that those who come do not include those who want to do us harm,” said Richard Foltin, legislative director and counsel for the American Jewish Committee.

Finding the balance is difficult, Foltin admitted, because “when you set up structures that are intended to protect us, you run the risk of overreacting.

“On the other hand,” he said, “if the security structures aren’t strong enough, then there’s the risk of letting people in who shouldn’t be allowed in.”

With that risk in mind, HIAS moved to begin a renewed discussion of immigration reform some six months ago, culminating in the June resolution.

“How do you find the terrorist in a mass of people? Comprehensive immigration reform is a way to focus our security efforts on those who are most dangerous to us,” Aronoff said. “If enforcement resources are used to round up and deport illegal migrant workers, those resources can’t be used to target Al-Qaida terrorists who may be threatening to the U.S.”

But it’s not a simple issue.

“Fear drives the debate in many respects, and sometimes it’s a justified fear,” said Dina Siegel Vann, director of U.N. and Latin American Affairs at B’nai Brith International.

But “we have to remember we are a society built by immigrants, and immigrants continue to play an important part in strengthening our society,” she said, so “we should transcend that fear and try to look for practical solutions to this dilemma.”

For the Jewish groups, coordination with the Latino community has become an important part of a solution that includes improving conditions in immigrants’ home countries, so they don’t feel they have to come to the United States to find work, Siegel Vann said.

“We have common experience — and we also have Latino Jews, like myself, who are part of both communities,” she said.

Working with like-minded organizations — such as labor unions and service industries — as well as Latino, Asian and other ethnic organizations fits the kind of collaborative solution HIAS called for in June.

In a July 24 letter to President Bush, HIAS praised the president’s efforts to negotiate a migration agreement with Mexican President Vincente Fox.

“All of these groups have come together on this issue because the current status quo is unacceptable and bad for the country,” Aronoff said. “It’s bad for the immigrants and it doesn’t give us what we need from our immigration system.”

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