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Let’s Roast Some Old Chestnuts

From: Gideon Aronoff To: John Derbyshire Subject: Old Chestnuts


Immigration restrictionists frequently trot out the old chestnut that American Jews’ attitudes about immigration are mired in a sepia-toned time warp where babushka’d bubbes and wide-eyed zaydes are still hobbling off boats from the old country. This is not, however, a valid description of twenty-first century American Jews’ views on immigration and our complex identities that meld parochial interests, universal Jewish values and our national interests as Americans.

Today, we are witnessing a striking parallel to our own Jewish American history, as Latin Americans, Asians and others clamber to get into America like we did – but this time, because we were ultimately embraced by America, we are mostly part of the established “native” population. We remember that when the massive waves of Jewish immigrants arrived in the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s – if you weren't Chinese – there were essentially no visa requirements, so it was easy to arrive legally. By the early 1920s however, severe restrictions were put in place and Jews began resorting to illegal entry, or were denied access, with tragic consequences during the Holocaust. Today there are only 5,000 visas for low skilled workers – it is therefore not surprising that desperately poor people take life-threatening measures to support their families, even if this runs counter to our immigration laws.

As a Jewish community activist engaged in the struggle to protect refugees and to ensure that immigrants and newcomers are offered welcome and assimilated into our country, I constantly seek to understand the diverse array of goals, hopes, needs and expectations our community has for America’s immigration system.

First, and from the most parochial perspective, Jews have a need for a system that facilitates Jewish immigration, protects Jewish refugees and recognizes that long- and short-term visitors from abroad are important parts of our global Jewish community. (Ten percent of all Jews in America today are foreign born – they are still coming from places where they’re not welcome; they still come to teach in our schools, work in our camps, etc.) That said, to serve this goal, it’s neither moral nor practical to think we can carve out a system that admits Jews but restricts others, slamming the door to America behind us.

Secondly, we have a need for a vibrant economy, now and in the future. While I fully recognize that the economic analysis of the pros and cons of immigration is complex, I come down on the side of the argument that our country needs significant immigration to continue its prosperity.

Since 1990, immigrants have started one out every four U.S. venture-backed public companies. The Kaufman Foundation reports that in 2005, 350 out of 100,000 immigrants started businesses each month; compared to 280 started by native born Americans. In technology the phenomenon is more apparent than in any other sector of the economy. American immigrants founded or co-founded some of the world’s most prominent tech companies, among them Intel, Sun Microsystems, eBay, Yahoo! and Google. Forty percent of companies operating in high-technology manufacturing today were started by immigrants and more than half of the employment generated by these manufacturers has come from immigrant-founded companies.

This pronounced, positive impact of immigration on America’s success is not just apparent in the entrepreneurial stat
istics. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projected in 2004 that the total employment in service occupations would increase by 19 percent by 2014, second only to professional and related occupations. Half of the 20 occupations anticipating the greatest job growth will require only short-term on-the-job training. During this same period America will need to fill about 25 million job openings (or 45 percent of all vacancies) with workers with a high-school diploma or less.

Third, the Jewish community requires federal policies that enhance community and national security. Jews need real security – not “press release” security. Real security will come from careful analysis, careful policy making and a focus on individuals where evidence shows they may be a threat – and not stereotyping groups such as Latinos, Africans, Middle Easterners or others. It will not come from speeches made in Congress, publicity stunts like the recent campaign to send bricks to elected officials, or partial, “feel-good,” enforcement measures that won’t actually stop undocumented immigration.

Fundamentally, an enforcement-only approach to immigration would be folly – and I find myself in good company when I say that. The Coalition for Immigration Security, a group of former Bush administration security officials, encourages Congress and the administration to enact legislation that provides strong immigration law enforcement coupled with “realistic policies related or our labor markets and economic needs.” The coalition also said in a report last year that undocumented immigrants should be allowed to pay a fine, undergo strict security checks, and “make amends for their mistake without crippling our economy and social structures by being part of a mass deportation. Each day that we fail to bring these people out of the shadows is another day of amnesty by default.” A fourth core need of American Jews is for immigration policies that promote the integration of newcomers into American culture — thereby enhancing both our security and our identity. It is essential to remember that integration into American culture is an historic phenomenon that makes the American experience markedly different from that of European countries, where integration is not fostered and where Jews are under siege. Moreover, it’s not inconsistent to call for policies that promote integration of newcomers and, at the same time value the benefits of true American diversity in allowing us to be fully Jewish and fully American.

The fears generated about people from other cultures bringing their antisemitism with them is yet another thinly-veiled example of bigotry trumping sound policy making. While it is true that some immigrants bring the prejudices of their home countries, including antisemitism, second- and third-generation immigrants tend to leave these negative views behind. Why? Because they are becoming fully-integrated Americans.

This alarmist prejudice against recent arrivals is not new to today’s America, it is part of a cycle of nativism that periodically afflicts our country. Our revered Ben Franklin’s own inherent bigotry was evident in 1751 in his “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind”:

“Why should the Palatine boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours?Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of us Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”

We Americans – all of us – should focus our debate about immigration based on rational analysis rather than irrational judgments about outsiders. We have been shown plenty of examples beyond Franklin’s that, when allowed to truly integrate, all groups do indeed become true Americans – while keeping alive their individual heritages. You can still get a pretty good bratwurst in Pennsylvania today but it’s safe to also say that English is still the predominant language throughout the state.

Finally, while all of these tangible interests are crucial, we must not lose sight of the fact that Jews are a religious and ethical people and the bearers of an ancient tradition. We are taught to internalize the lesson that is repeated throughout the Torah and the Talmud that we must “welcome the stranger,” “not oppress the stranger,” “protect the stranger,” “have one law for the stranger and the citizen among you,” all because “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

This lesson is most clearly articulated by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi, who has written:

“Why should you not hate the stranger? – asks the Torah. Because you once stood where he stands now. You know the heart of the stranger because you were once a stranger in the land of Egypt…I [G-d] made you into the world’s archetypal strangers so that you would fight for the rights of strangers – for your own and those others, wherever they are, whatever the colour of their skin or the nature of their culture, because, though they are not in your image – says G-d – they are nonetheless in Mine. There is only one reply strong enough to answer the question: Why should I not hate the stranger? Because the stranger is me.”

That’s why, even in 2007 as most of the world’s most serious hostilities are happening to other groups – refugees fleeing persecution in Iran, innocents enduring chaos and violence in Burma, destitute masses of undocumented migrants risking death to seek opportunity, millions suffering extreme poverty – we Jews still must focus on helping to protect them.

I close with a few questions to ponder: How generous should we be to people who are fleeing persecution? If we practically can’t deport 12 million people, is it better to leave them in the shadows, or create a package of enhanced enforcement, new immigration opportunities, legalization and integration programs? What policies best serve to promote the integration of newcomers? Since we can’t accept everyone in the world, what are the criteria for a controlled, liberal immigration system?

Without doubt there is plenty of room for analysis and debate on the details of these policy questions. But, based on the full range of American Jewish interests and values, I conclude that we Jews must remain deeply engaged with the challenges posed by American immigration and continue to fight the forces of immigration restriction as we seek to create a 21st century American Jewish movement for immigrants and refugees. NEXT: But why such favoritism to Mexicans, Gideon?

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