With an bill under consideration in Washington that would control illegal immigration and President Bush’s recent unveiling of a plan to reinforce the Mexican border the Latin American community has rallied to make sure that immigration reform does not produce an intolerant closed-border policy.
But Jewish groups are also getting involved in the debate, because the American Jewish story is an immigration story. As recently as the1990s, the U.S. witnessed a mass migration of Russian Jews to these shores. Jewish groups are also concerned because the plan currently under debate does not address how to integrate illegal immigrants already here into American society, or how the current situation could affect future legal immigration.
"The Jewish community has been very active in saying that we reject enforcement-only legislation . We need to make sure we protect the most vulnerable immigrants, including refugees seeking asylum," said Gideon Arronoff, president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society in New York City.
Created in 1881 by a group of Jewish immigrants in New York, HIAS has provided financial aid and other resources to more than 4.5 million Jewish refugees and immigrants from around the world.
In 1995, HIAS helped ‘1,691 people leave the former Soviet Union; in ‘005, 876 emigrated from the FSU. The number has steadily decreased since 199’, when it reached a high of 45,871. Nevertheless, the FSU remains the largest source of Jewish emigration, closely followed by Iran, from which ’97 Jews emigrated in ‘005.
"This year we are looking at refugee admissions programs of Jews from the former Soviet Union and Iran. Every day, news from Tehran, Moscow, and elsewhere underscores the need for the Jewish community [to maintain] access to the United States," said Arronoff.
Although historically HIAS has focused on Jewish refugees, the organization has joined the current immigration reform debate to keep America open for Jewish immigration.
"We have a clear mandate from the Torah to welcome the stranger to protect the refugee" said Arronoff. "That provides the emotional and philosophical basis for our work."
HIAS wants to push the U.S. government to consider that notion when creating immigration legislation. In a policy paper issued in March, Aronoff and HIAS board of directors chair Jerome Teller urged the Senate Judiciary Committee to include the following provisions in any immigration legislation:
Border protection policies consistent with American humanitarian values and effective against illegal migration, which would allow authorities to prevent entry to terrorists and other criminals;
An opportunity for hard-working immigrants to regularize their status upon completion of reasonable criteria, and pursue an option to become lawful residents;
Reforms in family-based immigration system to reduce waiting times for separated families;
The creation of legal avenues for workers and their families who want to enter the U.S. and work in a safe and legal manner;
Programs to enhance citizenship and encourage the integration of newcomers into American society.
"We see this as a compelling humanitarian issue as well as an important way to play a role in security and to get a handle on who is coming into the country, and creating programs to allow our police and other immigration enforcement agents to follow the most dangerous issues rather than chase people who are simply coming to work," Aronoff said.
For some Jewish immigrants in the U.S., the immigration experience is still very fresh.
Maria Gertsenshteyn emigrated from Russia in 1991 because for her, being Jewish is more important than being Russian, and America’s immigration policies offered a lifeline to her religious identity. As president of Teaneck’s Russian Club, she wants to help other Russian Jewish immigrants realize that their ties to Judaism are stronger than their ties to Russia. The club, which meets at Teaneck’s Cong. Beth Sholom, seeks to help Russian immigrants adapt to their new surroundings, and more importantly, she said to reconnect with their yiddishkeit.
"We must be Jewish, we are Jewish people," she said. "Here I have the opportunity to be Jewish. We know Russian culture, but it is not important for us here."
The Jewish Community Relations Council of UJA-NNJ is also looking at the immigration debate and has issued a series of talking points similar to those of HIAS. The JCRC focuses on family unification and the legalization of hard-working immigrants already in the country.
In December, the group paid for a trip to Israel for a Hispanic community leader from Hackensack. And nationally, 1′ people from across the country attended the Jewish Council for Public Affairs Hispanic American Leaders Institute conference. This summer, JCRC will meet with Hispanic community leaders to build on that experience, said JCRC director Joy Kurland.
Other community groups are also expressing their views on the issue and celebrating their own immigrant histories.
On Sunday, the Teaneck Community Chorus will perform "Songs of the Immigration Experience," and although chorus leaders did not have the current political situation in mind when they chose the theme, they recognize that it is particularly well-timed.
"We are a country that has been created by immigrants as well as people who were here when we arrived, and the people who didn’t want to be here at all," said Margaret White, the concert’s coordinator. "We hope people will enjoy hearing songs from their individual ethnic experience and enjoy hearing other peoples’ songs."
And the Jewish immigration song is not over. HIAS expects approximately 1,000 Jewish refugees to come to the U.S. this year from the FSU and Iran, according to Arronoff.
While he acknowledges a decrease in immigration from the high levels of the 1990s, he points out that Jewish refugees and resettlement usually come in waves. Although the Jewish community is in the midst of a smaller wave of migration, the aid is still available.
"We can look to the future with a clear vision based on Jewish history, which is that political persecution, religious persecution, and economic necessity will be the instigators of Jewish migration," Arronoff said.
As of April, HIAS had brought 444 refugees from the FSU, 47 Iranian Jews, 50 Iranian gentiles, and 116 individuals from Africa, in ‘006. "Our current refugee settlement network is much more diverse than 10 years ago [at the height of the Russian migration]," Arronoff said. "We have always had our primary focus on the migration needs of Jews and have done what we can in the broader field of American refugee policy."
According to the March statement from Arronoff and Teller, HIAS hopes its 1’5-year history of dealing with refugees will hold some sway with the government. "America can and must continue to be a welcoming nation, while maintaining security for all its citizens," they wrote.