A stranger in a strange land

A stranger in a strange land

Does our own historic wandering make us more sensitive to the plight of today’s immigrants?

Jews around the world gathered at their seder tables this week to tell the story of Yitziat Mitzrayum, the exodus from Egypt. We were slaves; the Almighty removed us from our servitude and ultimately brought us to a new land.

But while we in North Jersey eat our matzoh and hide the afikomen, we also need to be cognizant of Washington’s continuing failure to enact comprehensive law reform to eliminate another kind of slavery. The failure to enact such legislation unfortunately contributes to the loss of life, most recently in the Bronx, and affects such cities as Englewood where I am privileged to sit as mayor.

Mamadou Soumare, center, is pictured at a press conference at the Islamic Center in the South Bronx before he left for Mali to bury his wife and four children, who burned to death last month. Michael Wildes, his lawyer, is at left.

The United States has an extraordinary heritage of legal immigration, and with immigrants willing to fill available jobs in agriculture, hospitality, and construction, needed for our economy, Congress has failed to enact any substantive immigration reform. Its failure to do so results in the shifting of some of the financial burden to our local communities where some persons may be placed at risk.

As Jews, with our history as slaves and of subsequent generations of wandering in the diaspora, we are moved, privileged more than other people, to lead the rallying call for immigration reform.

We take our hats off to the City of New York, its wonderful people, and the local Homeland Security Immigration authorities for expressing compassion and support toward my client, Mamadou Soumare, whose wife and four children perished in the recent Bronx fire.

In an era of uncertainty, the immigration authorities, unlike our elected officials on Capitol Hill, have been extremely compassionate and finally took steps to confront one hard-working immigrant’s pains by allowing Mr. Soumare, who hails from the African nation of Mali, to go back home, bury his family, and return to the United States. Our historic tradition of respecting the religious beliefs of others was exercised honorably in this case. It is a tradition deeply engrained in our history to remember those who have perished in tragedy or war and to respect their burial traditions.

As the father of four children myself, I cried with him through this horrible tragedy.

Immigrants pay taxes and are part of our buying economy; they spend money and contribute to the overall growth of our nation. Secretary of Labor Carlos Gutierrez has stated that migrant workers were responsible for half of the entire agricultural labor force within the last decade and that their presence is greatly needed to sustain our global economic position. It is estimated that 15 million undocumented immigrant workers fill jobs needed in our economy, and this has not contributed to any increase in our unemployment rate. Hence, these workers obviously serve a needed place in our society. However, because of plain and simple economics and the ever-impending threat of removal, many immigrants working in the United States live in inadequate and often demeaning living conditions. Employers and landlords sometimes take advantage of their status by providing them with inhumane living and working conditions, which can occasionally result in tragedy.

It is not up to the state governments to enact legislation concerning immigration. Such power is solely vested in the federal government, which has exclusive power to establish rules of immigration. Washington’s silence in enacting comprehensive legislation to cure these ills is deafening, and the buck has been passed to local cities and towns across the nation, which have limited resources to confront federal inaction and are forced to shoulder increased educational, health-care, and housing burdens.

I am the proud grandson and great-grandson of immigrants from Russia and Germany. My forebears came through Ellis Island, in search of a better life for their families. I chose to practice immigration law in large part because I am a firm believer in the greatness of our country as a bright beacon of democracy to the rest of the world. In my years of practice, I have seen honorable men and women, who make important contributions to our society, try to build better lives on our shores — just as my ancestors did.

With Lady Liberty just a few nautical miles away in New York harbor, near the most densely populated state of our union, I ask: Will our natural heritage of hospitality to immigrants and respect for their diversity be tarnished? Or will Congress take action to repair our legal and economic damage? Will more die before the broken immigration system is fixed?

Michael Wildes, a former federal prosecutor and an immigration lawyer, is the mayor of Englewood and chair of the Immigration Task Force of the New Jersey League of Municipalities.