Jews, once strangers, must act to help immigrants

Jews, once strangers, must act to help immigrants

ST. PAUL – Remembering is fundamentally important to Jews, from the pre-biblical days to the present. We remember at Purim; we remember at Yom Kippur; we remember on Yom Hashoah. And on Passover, we are commanded to remember when we were strangers in Egypt, our Exodus and subsequent freedom.

As Jews, being the stranger, “ger,” is central to our identity. We were told recently in Mishpatim: “And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Thirty-five more times in the Torah we are reminded to welcome the stranger.

Whether we are newcomers or our families have been here for generations, we must act with the memory of the stranger when w e think about how we relate to immigrants today.

My family arrived on American soil in the 1910s from Romania and Ukraine. They left a life of pogroms, poverty and oppression that thankfully I can only imagine from books and stories. They were lucky to leave, and lucky they came when U.S. laws were open to Eastern Europeans. Ten years later, once restrictive quota laws were passed, their story would have been different.

Over the years, immigration policies often have favored political and economic needs over human needs. Our immigration system today is broken and raids have come to substitute for reform.

Since its creation in 2003, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has detained thousands of people in immigration raids. ICE claims raids protect public safety and national security. However, the vast majority of those affected are not criminals and do not threaten anyone’s safety.

Raids separate families, violate due process, hurt the economy, waste taxpayer money, misuse local police and threaten basic human rights of U.S. citizens and non-citizens. The damage continues well after the operation is over, and towns are left to deal with the resulting crisis.

Consider these facts:

* In 2008, 5,100 people were taken into custody in workplace raids, compared to 685 in 2004. Due-process violations during raids included entering without a warrant, interrogation without reasonable suspicion and racial profiling.

* ICE’s 2008 budget was $5 billion – $4 billion more than the State Department. Not passing immigration reform equals a bigger budget and a bigger problem. The Agriprocessors raid in Iowa alone cost $5.2 million.

* From January 2004 to November 2007, 67 people died in detention; no government body is required to track or report deaths.

* Children of detained and deported immigrants are sometimes put in foster care.

* In places such as Laurel, Miss., and Postville, Iowa, sites of the largest ICE raids in U.S. history, the loss of taxpayers, tenants and workers has caused property values to plummet and general economic crisis.

Our relatives came here seeking to improve their lives and their children’s lives, often escaping dire conditions. Though many came here legally, many came without documents because they had no other options. Quotas were full, home countries were unsafe, starvation loomed – it was a matter of survival.

Some Jews arriving at Ellis Island underwent unethical medical exams and many were slated for deportation. Due to language barriers and legalities, they were rarely able to defend themselves. They also faced impossible working conditions and exploitative employers. Today’s immigrants are facing hardships remarkably similar to our ancestors’.

Too frequently they are met with hostile policies, racially motivated agendas and an unwelcoming atmosphere. This is simply wrong – we remember from our own history where this mentality and actions based on it can lead.

As Jews we are commanded not to enslave, wrong or oppress strangers.

Jewish Community Action of St. Paul, along with 20 national Jewish organizations, is spearheading Progress by Pesach: the Jewish Call for Immigration Reform, not Raids. The program emphasizes family reunification, pathways to citizenship, legalized future migration, human rights protections, and the importance of ensuring due process and protections for workers and employers.

By Passover, which coincides with the Obama administration’s first 100 days, we hope to see serious steps in Washington toward passing just and humane immigration reform. Progress by Pesach echoes the call being made by millions of immigrant supporters.

There is no better time to act – to make your voice known in Washington – than at Passover. By signing a petition or letter (, you will join thousands of others in making the administration and Congress understand that we as Jews remember, we as Jews are commanded to act on the behalf of others, and we as Jews say “dayenu,” enough, to inadequate and unjust laws governing those who yearn to no longer be strangers.