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Obama cites Jewish immigration in pressing for reform

WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Obama cited the wave of Jewish immigration at the turn of the 20th century in pressing for immigration reform.

"One of the largest waves of immigration in our history took place little more than a century ago," Obama said in his address Thursday aimed at reviving a reform package that has languished for years in Congress. "At the time, Jewish people were being driven out of Eastern Europe, often escaping to the sounds of gunfire and the light from their villages burning to the ground. The journey could take months, as families crossed rivers in the dead of night, traveled miles by foot, endured a rough and dangerous passage over the North Atlantic. Once here, many made their homes in a teeming and bustling Lower Manhattan."

Obama referred then to the vision of Emma Lazarus, the Jewish poet whose poem adorns the Statue of Liberty. 

"Years before the statue was built — years before it would be seen by throngs of immigrants craning their necks skyward at the end of long and brutal voyage, years before it would come to symbolize everything that we cherish — she imagined what it could mean," Obama said. "She imagined the sight of a giant statue at the entry point of a great nation –– but unlike the great monuments of the past, this would not signal an empire. Instead it would signal one’s arrival to a place of opportunity and refuge and freedom."

Obama is seeking Republican support to back the immigration reform act, which would add funds to secure borders, and create a path to legal status for millions of undocumented workers through the payment of a fine, learning English and registering. He says he cannot pass it without GOP backing, and noted the efforts of his predecessor, George W. Bush, to pass similar legislation.

A number of groups oppose the legislation, dismissing it as "amnesty" for those who broke the law, and saying it would usurp the status of immigration applicants who have used legal means.

The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society and the American Jewish Committee praised the speech. 

"Our parents, grandparents, and earlier forebears came to these shores to seek a better life for themselves and future generations," HIAS said in a statement. "The vast majority of Americans still believe this country should remain true to these roots by providing a hospitable legal framework for the disadvantaged and dispossessed to arrive and integrate into our nation’s mosaic."

Richard Foltin, the AJC’s legislative director, said Obama’s invoking the Jewish immigrant experience was moving.

"We are moved by the President’s highlighting of the story of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th Century, and by his reminder of the role that this country has — when it heeds its better angels — played, and should continue to play, as a haven for those fleeing persecution as well as for those who simply wish to make a better life for themselves and their families," Foltin said.

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