Head of HIAS speaks at rally in Postville
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Head of HIAS speaks at rally in Postville

Sue Fishkoff was in Postville, Iowa for yesterday’s rally there on behalf of the workers at Agriprocessors. Click here for her story.

Perhaps the biggest name from the Jewish organizational world to take part was Gideon Aronoff, president and CEO of HIAS. Here’s the text of his speech:

Statement of Gideon Aronoff
President and CEO, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS)
Postville Iowa, July 27, 2008

Why are we all here in Postville on this Sunday afternoon? The simple answer can be found in the lessons of the Hebrew Bible – in the book of Genesis – where we are taught that we are – in fact – “our brothers’ keepers.”

This core Jewish teaching goes far in explaining the fundamental Jewish commitment to vulnerable refugees and immigrants of all faiths and backgrounds. We at HIAS, the American Jewish community’s international migration agency, have sought for 127 years to put these values into action. As both Americans and as Jews, we have worked to ensure that our country’s immigration laws reflect the promise that the great American-Jewish poet and HIAS volunteer, Emma Lazarus, described in her poem The New Colossus – “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breath free…”

We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. We are responsible. As Americans, we are responsible to see that our country addresses its problems directly, and does not simply dump them on the backs of the Mexican and Guatemalan immigrant workers at Agriprocessors, or on the community of Postville that they called home.

The raid at AgriProcessors should not have happened. Last year the President and Congress had a chance to fix our broken immigration system and create a new legal immigration system that honors core American values and serves essential American interests. They failed to live up to their responsibilities.

By now, millions of undocumented workers – including those arrested at AgriProcessors – who came to the United States simply to work and support their families – not to harm this country – should have been on the path to legal status and potentially citizenship. This would have been a long process, with appropriate penalties, but the immigrant workers would have been out of the shadows, able to fight exploitation, and as legal residents able to call on the government to protect them.

The AgriProcessors raid is part of the legacy of failed immigration reform. Instead of a national solution to a national problem, we now have a mishmash of state and local immigration proposals, scattershot raids, unworkable solutions like the border fence, and billions of dollars spent chasing after undocumented immigrant workers. Employers who need more immigrant workers than the tiny quota our law provides still have no legal avenues. Fundamentally, we must recognize that we cannot enforce our way out of this problem. The economic and social forces that drive immigration to the United States and around the world are simply far too strong.

The people of Postville are bearing the brunt of this federal non policy. For the undocumented workers, the punishment does not fit the crime. Criminal prosecution and months of jail time are not morally appropriate. There was no intent to harm anyone – they were simply playing by the rules of our defacto illegal immigration system. Now many of the workers sit in jail, families are separated and others live in fear that they may be next. And for the community of Postville – the schools, the businesses, the churches – the raid has meant massive dislocation and harm to a once thriving small town.

The raid at AgriProcessors typifies what our country faces in the wake of national failure on immigration reform. For many of those in the Jewish community who have yet to join in the mobilization for immigration reform, the raid is a wake up call. The kosher meat produced here sustains life for so many. We must pay attention to how this product is produced.

If, as alleged, AgriProcessors violated labor, health and safety laws then they should be prosecuted to protect their workers – legal and undocumented alike – and the entire community. If AgriProcessors, like countless employers across the country, relied on undocumented workers to fill vital labor needs then they should be penalized, not just the workers. But more importantly for the future of our country, a rational relationship must be created between our economic realities and our immigration laws.

We in the Jewish community are taught the preeminent importance of welcoming, protecting and loving the stranger. We remember the thousands of years of expulsion and dispersion of Jewish history where we were forced by anti-Semitism and poverty to migrate in search of security, freedom and opportunity.

These lessons – and our community’s interests in pluralism, economic vitality, social integration and security – compel us to insist on humane and just treatment of immigrants. We also must work to end to the chaos, violence, death and exploitation that come from the failure to fix our broken immigration system. The government must take responsibility and do its job. But we in the Jewish community – and all in the broader American community – must also heed the biblical injunction to be our brothers’ keepers.

Our values and our interests require that we care for the stranger – the immigrant – when he or she is in need. We also must and stand with Postville and other communities across the country that have been devastated by raids and failed immigration policy. These are the new frontlines of the immigration struggle. And that is why I, and we, are here today.