Immigration, old and new

Immigration, old and new

The Interfaith Immigration Coalition has called on President Obama and the new Congress to prioritize immigration reform in 2009. As part of the group’s projected campaign to engage religious groups and congregations in support of such reform, more than 100 prayer vigils on immigration will be held nationally.

The issues involved in any discussion of the topic are complex. For example: When is an immigrant a refugee, and how should that designation affect his or her status? How does a country’s immigration policy affect that nation’s growth, security, and identity? Can a humanitarian absorption effort inadvertently lead to a flood of new immigrants, overtaxing the host nation’s ability to integrate them? When does the welcome mat need to be withdrawn?

Jews – who have done more than our share of traveling from country to country, often against our will – are uniquely placed to speak on this topic.

On the one hand, having been the “new arrivals” in many lands over the course of our history, we know what it means to be the stranger. We also know about the biblical injunction to love the stranger, and we have benefited when that dictum has been observed on our behalf.

On the other hand, as equal participants in an economic maelstrom, we are competing with millions of others for jobs, benefits, and resources. Will seemingly unlimited immigration by a new crop of strangers undermine our place in the economy?

After all, nearly 12 million undocumented men, women, and children live in the United States, and hundreds of thousands more attempt to come each year.

How do we reconcile these competing interests? And is there really a conflict between these points of view? The issue is not really black and white. Chances are, we are not competing with immigrants for the same jobs (nor are we likely to seek the same jobs we filled when we first arrived in this country). In addition, there are communities throughout the nation that are dependent on immigrant labor.

But even more, both as Jews and as citizens of a democracy, we need to ensure that whatever is decided, we change our collective mindset, reclassifying “immigrants” as “people.” As such, like us, they are entitled to dignity and humane treatment.

The current system does not work. Separating families, raiding workplaces, and building fences is not only inhumane but ineffective. We hope that the Obama administration will have a better answer.