A few years ago at an immigration conference, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel said simply and powerfully, “No human being is illegal.”
The Jewish community’s point man on immigration, Gideon Aronoff, president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, recalled Wiesel’s elegant plea on behalf of immigrants this week as the Senate Judiciary Committee begins hearings on legislation that would provide a clear path to citizenship for many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in this country.
Aronoff, who heads the oldest continuously operating migration and refugee resettlement agency in the United States, is urging grassroots Jews to get more involved in the immigration issue. And his call comes, ironically, at a time when Jewish immigration to the U.S. is at its lowest level in decades.
In a recent interview, Aronoff, 43, who took over as president of HIAS last year after serving for several years as head of the agency’s Washington office, argued that the stakes for the Jewish community in securing passage of a bill that serves to legalize the status of America’s illegal immigrants — the vast majority of whom are Mexican and other Hispanic nationals who entered the U.S. in search of living wages — are both moral and practical.
Yet Aronoff, who came to HIAS after more than a decade at the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews, consistently emphasized the moral issues. He argued that American Jews, who fought successfully to get the U.S. government to accord refugee status to Jews in peril in the Soviet Union and other countries, should be concerned when the rights of any would-be immigrants, including Muslims, are violated.
“We have our Jewish community mandate to welcome the stranger, consisting of 36 references in the Torah — not only to welcome, but to love the stranger,” Aronoff said. “To be sure, the Torah is not an immigration law manual and you do not have to be in favor of open borders to be a good Jew. Yet our heritage means that when we think as a community about a complex public policy question like immigration, we should have a thumb on the scale for the migrant.”
Aronoff said that while a wide range of Jewish organizations is solidly behind comprehensive immigration reform, it is critical to energize the Jewish grass roots as well, given the preponderance of such activism on the other side of the issue.
“Last year,” he said, “the pro-immigrant side of the debate was outmaneuvered by restrictionists who dominated the airwaves on talk radio, cable news programs and created very effective grass roots efforts, like a campaign to send bricks to Congress to convince them to build a wall.”
Recalling the period of 1921-‘65 when the U.S. ended essentially unlimited immigration and instituted a strict quota system that favored immigrants from white European countries, Aronoff said, “Today, when we hear slogans like “What part of illegal don’t you understand?” or “Why don’t they go wait in line?” we should remember that when there were visa lines for Jews from Germany and Austria with rise of Hitler, it led to tragic consequences for the Jewish community.”
Recalling that many desperate Jewish refugees during that period were “illegals” who sought to get into the U.S. in any way they could, Aronoff said, “It is true that poverty in Latin America and Third World are not the same thing as Nazism. Yet extreme poverty causes people to need to flee just as political and religious violence does.”
Aronoff said that after 9/11 “I was concerned that there would be a response of Jewish groups saying, ‘This is an issue we want to keep our heads down on.’ Yet that hasn’t happened. The Jewish community has instead said, ‘We can reform our immigration system in ways that allow us to target those who pose the greatest dangers to us, but doing it in a way that honors our traditions and religious imperative to welcome the stranger.’”
But not everyone in the Jewish community agrees.
Stephen Steinlight, a former national director of the American Jewish Committee, who is today a senior policy analyst at the Center of Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank that advocates large-scale limitations on immigration, opposes comprehensive immigration reform. “The group in the U.S. with the highest incidence of anti-Semitism after Muslims are foreign-born Latinos,” he said. “You think they will be our friends? Look how well the black-Jewish alliance held up.
“The position of the Jewish establishment organizations on immigration is a minority one in the Jewish community,” Steinlight continued. “But unfortunately they set the political agenda. These organizations are blind to political reality, which is that support of open-border immigration is leading to a disempowerment of the Jewish community.”
The Senate Judiciary Committee was scheduled to open hearings on comprehensive immigration reform on Wednesday with testimony by Homeland Security Chairman Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez that will lay the groundwork for the introduction of a bill in the committee.
According to Lisa Shugar, director of HIAS’ Washington office, the eventual Senate bill will likely be similar in form to last year’s McCain-Kennedy Immigration bill, and include provisions for stepped-up law enforcement to prevent crossing of the U.S.-Mexican border by tens of thousands of illegal immigrants each year as is presently the case, combined with a path to legalization of the status of the millions of illegals already in the U.S.
The McCain-Kennedy bill was passed by the Senate last year, but died when the House of Representatives refused to budge from its own bill that focused exclusively on tightening border security and refused to offer a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants presently in the U.S. Since then, Democrats captured both houses of Congress, enhancing the chances that an immigration reform bill that includes eventual citizenship for illegals will pass.
Aronoff said that HIAS’ endorsement of comprehensive immigration reform “does not mean we believe illegal immigration is a good thing or that we advocate open borders. Rather, we accept the importance of enforcement as part of a comprehensive solution.
“Yet the idea that enforcement alone solves the problem is fantasy. Indeed, the U.S. has seen expanding illegal immigration despite billions spent over last 10 years on enforcement and the fact that more people are dying crossing the border.”
Asked about complaints from the American Muslim community that in the wake of 9/11, it has become increasingly difficult for people from Muslim countries to get immigration or student visas to the U.S., Aronoff replied, “So far, there has not been a moratorium placed on immigration from Islamic countries, but many significant problems have developed for immigrants from Muslims countries. It is certainly correct for the U.S. to screen newcomers, but that screening should be coupled with safeguards so that innocent people don’t get caught up in an unresolvable way.”
Steinlight countered, “Aronoff’s support for Muslim immigration reminds me of Lenin’s adage that the capitalist will sell you the rope that you hang him with. Here is a community that wants to undo our political clout and whose anti-Semitism is off the charts.”
Yet Aronoff believes that voices like that of Steinlight, will not have a serious impact on thinking in the Jewish community.
“It is the consensus position in our community not to take the bait of the anti-immigrant people or to allow fear of terrorism to cause us to oppose all immigrations/immigrants from Muslim countries … American values of individualism and pluralism are of crucial importance to maintaining what this country is about and ensuring it remains a proper home for the Jewish community.”