Love the Stranger: Looking to the Torah for Guidance on Immigration Policy

Defense Base Darwin Detention Facility

Both major political parties in Australia have agreed to indefinitely detain some asylum seekers as a deterrent to others. This detention facility at Defense Base Darwin was adapted in 2005 to incarcerate an increasing number of undocumented fishermen. Credit: Creative Commons/Ken Hodge.

My mother arrived in San Francisco as a three-year-old in the 1940s. She was overheard saying the word Fierlesher (Yiddish for fire fighter). Her father was told that she must not speak the old language in the new country. It was a difficult time for her family as her father sought a dignified livelihood and they all adjusted to living in a new land.

The Torah demands that I empathize with the migrant because my people were strangers in the land of Egypt. We are called to go further than that and “love the stranger.” That is why I am using these pages to draw on Torah sources and consider two elements of the immigration debate: a just use of “limited” resources and the role of prejudice in the attitudes to migration.

The United States is not the only country that takes harsh methods to limit immigration. Some of the reports about Africans seeking a new life in Israel have also been disturbing, and a range of anti-migrant policies and rhetoric is also being employed in many other countries across the world. In Australia, where I live, both major political parties have agreed to indefinitely detain at least some asylum seekers and undocumented immigrants who arrive by boat in third countries, such as Papua New Guinea, as a deterrent to others considering coming here. The policy is a significant shift for the ruling Labour party: only a few years back, a newly elected Labor government emphatically rejected the previous government’s strategy of sending asylum seekers to a third country, Nauru. But the government turned around and adopted the same policy in 2012.

Hard Decisions about Limited Resources

A taxi driver recently told me that that he believes Australia’s charity should be prioritized to benefit people living in Australia, i.e. Aboriginal people living in dire poverty. I don’t think this view is unreasonable. At one level, discussions about immigration policy need to focus on the realistic choices that people of goodwill in government and the community need to make about where limited available resources will be spent. Jewish tradition teaches us that “the poor of your city take precedence” (Sifre). We need to think seriously about whether or not we are prepared to live up to the beautiful sentiments expressed by Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor… the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me.” If we as nations are not prepared to rise to this challenge, then some prioritization of resources may be a necessary interim measure, until we can truly embrace all members of the human family.

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