Will immigration get on the agenda?


The immigration issue got hardly any attention during the presidential campaign, and with the collapse of the economy in the last few months has seemed to recede even more into the background. But Jewish groups have been making a big push for comprehensive immigration reform in the last couple weeks.

Two weeks ago, a coalition of Jewish organizations, led by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, rolled out "Progress by Pesach," urging President Obama to issue an executive order or other directive to Immigration and Customs Enforcment curtailing the use of raids as a primary tool of immigration enforcement and expressing hope for some movement in Congress on the issue. And many of the same organizations joined the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, which urges the president and Congress to enact of a "humane and equitable" immigration policy by the end of 2009.

At a press conference introducing the coalition on Wednesday, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism director Rabbi David Saperstein said he believed there was reason to think the immigration issue would get Washington’s attention.

"A year and a half ago, John McCain warned that if the Republican Party stayed with its position on immigration, they would lose the election," said Saperstein. "He was right."

Thus, Saperstein said that he would expect the GOP to avoid making immigration a divisive issue and "combined with President Obama’s statements on this issue it does give us reason for hope."

Jim Wallis, founder and president of progressive Christian group Sojourners, agreed that if Republicans continue to "pacify their Lou Dobbs base," they will "lose election after election after election." 

He added that the interfaith coalition’s plans for education and advocacy programs, as well as prayer vigils, through its members around the country would also help to change the mood in the nation’s capital.

"Most changes don’t start in Washington," he said. "The movement will happen because of a movement in the streets."

Saperstein told the press conference that the immigration issue had a "special resonance for the Jewish people."

"Throughout history, the Jewish community has been the quintessential immigrant community, often forced to flee from land to land to land," he said. "Having struggled to adjust to societies that did not welcome our arrival, we understand many of the challenges faced by today’s immigrants."

The coalition’s platform for a "humane and equitable" immigration reform includes upholding family unity as a priority, creating a process for undocumented immigrants to earn legal status and eventual citizenship, restoring due process protections and reforming detention policies and aligning the enforcement of immigration laws with humanitarian values.

And Saperstein outlined the flaws in the U.S.’s current immigration policy.

"The time has come to put aside the policies and practices that do not work," he said. "Among those failed practices are workplace raids that do not address the problems with our immigration system, create due process concerns, leave families separated and traumatized, and are all too often carried out without respect for the fundamental rights or dignity of men and women."
Reps. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Mike Honda (D-Calif.) also spoke at the event, with Gutierrez emphasizing the importance of preserving "family unity" in any immigration reform and noting that religious institutions are places that "really care about immigrants and where immigrants have true power."

Saperstein was the only Jewish leader who spoke at the press conference, but the coaltion includes a multitude of Jewish organizations. Among them are the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the American Jewish Commitee, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, National Council of Jewish Women, the Progressive Jewish Alliance, Rabbis for Human Rights–North America, Union for Reform Judaism, United Jewish Communities, Women of Reform Judaism, Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring and Uri L’Tzedek.

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