Jews understand what it means to start a new life in another country. As a nation of immigrants, the US welcomed and protected generations of Jews who fled persecution, famine and poverty in Eastern Europe and the Middle East to begin a new life in the US together with their families. Today, a commitment to the core Jewish mandate of “welcoming the stranger” takes a different form. This year, Jewish activists around the country have mobilized – some even getting arrested in acts of civil disobedience – to push Congress to pass an immigration reform package that would put an end to families being separated by deportation and establish a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants.
But as progress on immigration reform stalls in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, some hard-line GOP members want to withhold all access to citizenship for one of the most vulnerable groups of immigrants: the undocumented. Moreover, some politically conservative Jews have been quoted in the press as being involved in this push against a pathway to citizenship for newcomers to the US. One vocal opponent to reform is Stephen Steinlight, former director of national affairs for the American Jewish Council (AJC), who in June told the Jewish Daily Forward that he views Jewish pro-immigration reform activists as “do-gooders leaning over backwards for the aggrieved.” Can Jews overcome such political difference within their ranks to achieve justice for immigrants?
Acrimony in Congress over its stalled immigration reform effort is reflected somewhat by divisions in the Jewish community over the issue of what to do about undocumented workers. But many Jewish activists – from labor leaders like Communication Workers of America (CWA) president Larry Cohen to the National Council of Jewish Women, to local groups collaborating through the coordinated efforts of Bend the Arc and the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable – are rallying around the idea that all newcomers to the US deserve access to full citizenship.
“We need to get our values back in balance,” said Irv Hershenbaum, First Vice President for corporate research at the United Farm Workers union. “I think that as people who benefited by coming to this country, we [Jews] have an obligation to make sure others benefit as well.” But Jewish activists’ support for fair immigration reform is rooted in more than a do-gooder’s sense of obligation about extending to today’s immigrants the same rights and privileges that past generations of Jews received. Rather, Jewish activist groups support just immigration reform because it is urgently needed, and because the Jewish community’s future depends on it.
The National Council of Jewish Women, says its CEO Nancy Kaufman, “is fighting for immigration reform that includes a broad and clear roadmap to citizenship.” Kaufman adds that NCJW views immigration reform as an urgent issue because of the need to keep families together rather than having them torn apart by deportations, as is happening now. Kaufman describes what her organization is doing to make sure a just and humane reform package passes: “We are mobilizing the Jewish community,” she said, “through trainings, legislative visits, rallies and protests, with our own Washington director participating in civil disobedience around this issue that recently led to her arrest.” Kaufman is referring to NCJW Washington director Sammie Moshenberg, who was arrested Sept. 12 as part of a demonstration by about 100 women in leadership positions at various organizations who staged a sit-in in front of the US Capitol to demand action on immigration reform.
Other Jewish leaders recognize that all progressive goals: workers’ rights, raising the minimum wage, winning civil rights for LGBTQ and communities of color, funding and fixing public education – all these victories to come will depend on the votes of the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US. Communication Workers of America (CWA) union president Larry Cohen was arrested along with faith and community leaders Aug. 1 in Washington D.C. for participating in an act of civil disobedience urging Congress to act quickly to pass immigration reform. Cohen said, “All of us in CWA are proud to stand for citizenship and against intolerance.I am proud to represent our members today as we demonstrate the broad movement that supports a citizenship path for 11 million of our co-workers and neighbors.We will support this campaign as long as it takes whether we are sitting in the streets or organizing in our communities.”
This idea of “standing with” immigrants for a pathway to citizenship is a familiar one to labor activists like Hershenbaum, who learned to put the concept of solidarity into action by working with former UFW president and labor icon Cesar Chavez. Hershenbaum said that improving conditions for immigrant workers, who contribute real productivity to the nation’s economy, is in everyone’s best interests. “I think we need to embrace immigrants,” he told me. “They are doing the work. The more they make, the more they pay into Social Security, and the better off we are.”
Hershenbaum added that the United Farm Workers is working in California to register and mobilize voters to put pressure on Congress to pass humane and just immigration reform. He said winning a fair and respectful immigration reform law will be a precursor to Jews and immigrant groups working together to win on other issues that matter, like raising wages and improving public education. “We need allies in the Jewish community,” he said, “and we should embrace [immigrants’] issues if we want them to embrace our issues. We’re doing everything from setting up service operations and putting every ounce of political energy we have at every level into this.”
“We are dependent on folks who are here,” he said. “They’re here not because they like the food, but because they want a better life for themselves and their families.” Surely this is a motive that Jews, perhaps better than most, can respect.