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.
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