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Treat the stranger with compassion

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A HIAS Passover Seder at Ellis Island in 1913. (Photo courtesy HIAS Archives)

A HIAS Passover Seder at Ellis Island in 1913. (Photo courtesy HIAS Archives)

NEW YORK (JTA) — The recent immigration raids in New Bedford, Mass., where nearly 200 children were left stranded when their parents, who otherwise were lawful workers, were arrested and shipped off to detention centers in Texas and other distant states reinforce the essential failure of America’s immigration policies. With the introduction in the U.S. House of Representatives on March 22 of the bipartisan STRIVE Act – Security Through Regularized Immigration and a Vibrant Economy – Congress again is attempting to confront the tragic reality that our immigration system is broken and provides neither respect for rule of law nor humane treatment of immigrant workers and families; and that we are undermining the fundamental civic and religious values that Americans cherish. The STRIVE Act and similar efforts over the past years seek to address the complex issues surrounding the phenomenon of unauthorized migration to the United States in a comprehensive, not piecemeal, fashion. To succeed we must create a smart, strong and humane border and interior immigration enforcement system; a path to legal status and citizenship for people after they meet fair and reasonable criteria; new legal immigration options that protect both immigrant and native-born workers; an end to unconscionable backlogs in the immigration of the closest family members; and programs to promote citizenship and the integration of newcomers into American civic culture. As we enter the Passover season, members of Congress and the general public prepare to engage in the vitally important debate over the future of our country’s immigration policies. Essential guidance for this debate comes from a core teaching of the annual retelling of the story of Passover and the Exodus from Egypt – that we must treat “the stranger,” the resident alien or immigrant, with compassion and love.It is through the constant reminder of Passover that we are taught to internalize this lesson – one that is repeated throughout the Torah and the Talmud – that we must “welcome the stranger,” “not oppress the stranger,” “protect the stranger,” “have one law for the stranger and the citizen among you,” all because “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” This lesson is most clearly articulated by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi, who has written, “Why should you not hate the stranger? asks the Torah. Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt…I [G-d] made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those others, wherever they are, whatever the colour of their skin or the nature of their culture, because, though they are not in your image – says G-d – they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.” A Jewish response to these problems addressed in the STRIVE Act recognizes that there are certain to be some Jews among the approximately 12 million undocumented immigrant residents in this country. However, the values taught through the seder and from our Jewish tradition and experience compel us to turn our hearts to the spectrum of undocumented immigrants who fled poverty, corruption and violence in Mexico, Central America and elsewhere around the world. We see in these migrants a reflection of our own history, where many of our ancestors came to this country seeking an opportunity to live in America, the goldene medine (golden land), free from poverty and deprivation, as well as pogroms and anti-Semitism. In 1898, the Paris Council of the Jewish Colonization Society traveled throughout the Pale of Settlement in Russia – in the midst of a period of Jewish history that saw more than 1.25 million Jews immigrate to the United States – and reported, “In Vilna, we saw basements that were two floors underground: 5,000 families, that is 20,000 human beings, live in these lairs… Darkness filled the room, and with the scorching sun outside, we had to light a candle to take in this picture of disgust and desolation.”Understanding that many of our own ancestors escaped this kind of poverty when they immigrated to America, we can appreciate that the hardships of extreme poverty led suffering people to risk everything for a chance at a future for themselves and their families. We also remember that the Jewish Emigration Society, founded in Kiev in 1909, reported in 1913, “75 percent of the emigrants [from Russia] crossed the border illegally, assisted by clandestine emigration ‘agents.’ “One need not, and should not, condone the practice of undocumented migration, but can understand that desperate people take extreme measures. Unlike the U.S. immigration system that existed before 1921, when there were no visa limits for low-skilled immigrant workers, today’s migrants face an unreasonable annual quota of only 5,000 slots. It is believed that upwards of 500,000 new undocumented migrants join the shadow economy each year, demonstrating the dramatic disconnect between available visas and jobs. The failure by the United States to address the problems of undocumented migration in a forthright and courageous manner has resulted in massive security gaps where millions reside in the shadows and do not receive criminal, health or terrorist screenings; immigration and border enforcement resources are wasted chasing otherwise law-abiding workers; smugglers and document forgers are enriched; and respect for rule of law is undermined. At the same time, millions of immigrants face exploitation in the workplace and hundreds die each year from the treacherous conditions on the borders. For Jews, this struggle to convert our current illegal immigration system into a legal immigration system that serves our country’s and our community’s security, social and economic interests and treats immigrants with dignity, humanity and care, is an effort to fulfill the finest teachings of our tradition and the lessons of our history as a wandering people. While the Torah is certainly not an immigration law manual, and people of good will can differ on specific proposals such as the STRIVE Act, our Jewish religious and ethical traditions are powerful guides on how to confront difficult policy challenges. In this Passover season, taking action to truly love the strangers in our midst and fix our broken immigration system would be an act of both compassion and wisdom.(Gideon Aronoff is the president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.)

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