Why Immigration Reform Is A Jewish Issue

Jews understand that while we may not be the ones on the buses today, we’ve been there before.

Stosh Cotler is the CEO of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice.    
National Journal
Stosh Cotler
April 11, 2014, 2:13 a.m.

A 12-year-old boy and his sib­lings are smuggled out of their coun­try and brought to Amer­ica. They grow up poor, but their hand-to-mouth lives here are still bet­ter than the pos­sib­il­it­ies they faced in their home coun­try. With time, they come to prosper and to love their new coun­try, to think of it as their real home.

This is a fa­mil­i­ar story among today’s im­mig­rants, who are trapped in the middle of a fierce na­tion­al de­bate about im­mig­ra­tion re­form. But it’s also the story of my grand­fath­er, who fled pogroms in Kiev 100 years ago, and found a home in the United States.

The Jew­ish story is a story of im­mig­ra­tion.

Some 2.5 mil­lion Jews ar­rived in the United States between 1881 and 1924. The fact is, many Amer­ic­an Jews are only two or three gen­er­a­tions re­moved from their first days in this coun­try. But our ex­per­i­ences with im­mig­ra­tion stretch far deep­er than that. Dur­ing Pas­sov­er, the di­a­spora will re­cite the story of our ex­odus from Egypt on one of our most widely prac­ticed hol­i­days. Our Pas­sov­er story of walk­ing through the desert for 40 years in search of a new home is shared around Jew­ish din­ner tables across the globe.

Jews have al­ways been im­mig­rants. We’re al­ways search­ing for a safe place to call home. That is one reas­on we are so in­ves­ted in mak­ing sure that today’s im­mig­rants have the op­por­tun­ity to build their lives in Amer­ica like we did.

Right now, at least 11 mil­lion men, wo­men, and chil­dren are liv­ing in the United States with the real fear that they could be thrown in­to a de­ten­tion cen­ter, de­por­ted, and torn from their fam­il­ies at any time. These are our neigh­bors, our friends, and our chil­dren’s class­mates. Even if we don’t have a per­son­al con­nec­tion to any of the mil­lions of un­doc­u­mented people in Amer­ica, they are people whose in­nate dig­nity de­serves re­spect.

Today, up­wards of 30,000 people are be­ing held in de­ten­tion cen­ters across the coun­try, many without any way to con­tact their fam­il­ies. Every day an av­er­age of 1,120 people are put on buses and dis­carded across the bor­der. This is no way to treat people who have worked hard, paid their taxes, and con­trib­uted to the coun­try like the rest of us — they are “dif­fer­ent” only be­cause they lack the right pa­pers.

Our im­mig­ra­tion sys­tem has crumbled to the point of cruelty. It is a crisis of gov­ernance and a crisis of our na­tion­al con­science. Jews un­der­stand that while we may not be the ones on the buses today, we’ve been there be­fore. We know that when one group is threatened, it puts every­one at risk.

One of Juda­ism’s cent­ral teach­ings is to “wel­come the stranger,” to of­fer shel­ter to those in need and to ac­cept those who we per­ceive to be dif­fer­ent from us. Con­trary to the in­di­vidu­al­ist­ic, go-it-alone at­ti­tude that has pre­ven­ted our coun­try from mak­ing pro­gress on many press­ing so­cial is­sues in re­cent years, Jews be­lieve that our fates are bound up in one an­oth­er — that we’re all in this to­geth­er. Put in a dif­fer­ent way, we are re­spons­ible for each oth­er, and an in­justice against one hurts every­body. It also means we are re­spons­ible for cor­rect­ing the in­justices in our world.

That’s where polit­ics comes in. Polit­ics, while of­ten ugly, can also be the busi­ness of mak­ing our coun­try a bet­ter and more equit­able place.

Nearly 70 per­cent of Jews sup­port com­pre­hens­ive im­mig­ra­tion re­form, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey re­leased by the Pub­lic Re­li­gion Re­search In­sti­tute and the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion in March 2013. We are op­tim­ist­ic, but we un­der­stand that pro­gress does not just hap­pen — it takes a lot of hard work.

That’s why Bend the Arc has been or­gan­iz­ing the Jew­ish com­munity to fight along­side im­mig­rants’-rights groups, civil-rights cham­pi­ons, and faith lead­ers to pres­sure the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives to bring im­mig­ra­tion re­form to a vote. It’s why Jew­ish con­stitu­ents held a meet­ing with Ma­jor­ity Lead­er Eric Can­tor to dis­cuss im­mig­ra­tion re­form, and why Bend the Arc and ten of the na­tion’s lead­ing Jew­ish so­cial-justice or­gan­iz­a­tions have cir­cu­lated a pe­ti­tion ur­ging Rep. Can­tor to put im­mig­ra­tion re­form up for a vote on the House floor. It’s why we’ve sent rab­bis and Jew­ish cit­izens to meet with their mem­bers of Con­gress in their home dis­tricts. It’s why our Rabbi-in-Res­id­ence was ar­res­ted along­side im­mig­rants and mem­bers of Con­gress dur­ing a rally for im­mig­ra­tion re­form on the Na­tion­al Mall. And it’s why hun­dreds of Jews fas­ted in their homes in solid­ar­ity with the act­iv­ists who camped out in front of the Cap­it­ol and went without food for 22 days.

The Jew­ish com­munity has come a long way in Amer­ica. From the days when my grand­fath­er and his sev­en broth­ers and sis­ters each had a single pair of shoes, my own fam­ily and many oth­ers have helped to build a highly or­gan­ized and in­flu­en­tial com­munity. We have a polit­ic­al op­por­tun­ity now to ad­dress a fun­da­ment­al in­justice in our coun­try. Op­por­tun­ity brings re­spons­ib­il­ity, and we must ask ourselves, “How will we give back to the coun­try that offered us a home?”

Amer­ica was built by im­mig­rants. They have plowed our heart­land, strengthened the fab­ric of our cit­ies and small towns, and en­riched our na­tion as a whole. Fam­il­ies that have been here for gen­er­a­tions know that. New cit­izens and as­pir­ing Amer­ic­ans know it. Elec­ted lead­ers know it. Many loc­al gov­ern­ments are by­passing Con­gress and tak­ing steps to make their cit­ies more wel­com­ing for im­mig­rants be­cause they know it, too.

Our treat­ment of im­mig­rants has al­ways defined our char­ac­ter as a na­tion, for bet­ter, or worse. At Bend the Arc, we are com­mit­ted to mak­ing it bet­ter.

Stosh Cotler is the CEO of Bend the Arc: A Jew­ish Part­ner­ship for Justice, a na­tion­al or­gan­iz­a­tion in­spired by Jew­ish val­ues and the stead­fast be­lief that Jew­ish Amer­ic­ans, re­gard­less of re­li­gious or in­sti­tu­tion­al af­fil­i­ations, are com­pelled to cre­ate justice and op­por­tun­ity for all Amer­ic­ans.


The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, and so­cial ef­fects of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force, and health. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com. Please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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