The Immigration Wars

By Rabbi Steven Pruzansky

Obviously, Jews have benefited from liberal immigration policies, such as existed in the United States from 1880-1923, and suffered grievously from restrictive immigration policies in the years before and during the Holocaust. But Jewish Law proscribes even the entry of, for example, idolaters, to the Land of Israel, much less their permanent residence. Gerei Toshav who by definition embrace the Noachide laws are welcome, to a point determined by the society. That sounds reasonable.

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Is there a uniquely Jewish approach to immigration?

To read some of the statements of the Jewish left, one would think that Jews support unlimited immigration, as if every person on the planet has the right to live wherever he or she chooses to live. That is certainly a compassionate sentiment, albeit unrealistic, and compassion that is not tempered by realism is harmful and foolish. It is as if the Treaty of Westphalia that established in 1648 the ground rules of the system of nation-states is as dead as the Oslo Accords. We can delude ourselves into thinking that we are in a post-national world where defined borders and distinct national identities no longer matter but wishing it so does not make it so. Indeed, the restrictions built into Jewish Law on residence in Israel for foreigners is designed to maintain the unique character of the Jewish polity that would be diluted by the residence of large numbers of aliens; we are, after all, “the fewest among the nations.”

Nowhere is this dilemma highlighted more than in the current debates over illegal immigration in the United States and the presence of illegal migrants in Israel. Naturally, the leftist spokesmen who habitually distort the Torah’s view on any issue that intersects with their political positions favor what appears to be unlimited immigration to America (although they won’t call it that) and have recently criticized Israel for endeavoring to deport some 40,000 migrant workers from Somalia, Eritrea and Sudan who escaped to Israel looking for work but have also brought terror, crime and general misery to the Jews of South Tel Aviv where they disproportionately reside. We are sympathetic to the plight of the refugee and all refugees, i.e., people fleeing persecution, deserve temporary havens until permanent places of residence can be found. But not every person who leaves his country of origin is a “refugee” as classically understood and as naturally evokes the sympathy of Jews and all decent people.

For example, people who leave their home countries that “lack infrastructure, opportunity and stability” (to “paraphrase” President Trump) are not necessarily refugees who are entitled to a haven in their country of choice. Thus, in Israel, the migrant workers sneaked in to the country to seek greater economic opportunity, certainly understandable from their perspective. But every nation has a responsibility first and foremost to its own citizens and when uninvited newcomers threaten to unravel the social dynamic, a country is obligated to protect itself. In Israel’s case, it built a wall on its southern border that reduced illegal migration by 99 %, part of the impetus for the Trump approach and a rebuke to those who say that walls are obsolete. They are not, even in America’s case where so many illegal immigrants just overstay their visas. But a wall is certainly a necessary step to prevent the entry of contraband and to reduce the number of illegals who cross the border. And there are plenty of poor Israelis who need job assistance and public support, and a nation that defines itself as a Jewish state must seek to retain its character. That means providing temporary asylum and then return to a country that is more culturally and religiously homogenous to the entrants.

The situation in the United States is more complicated as it defines itself as a nation of immigrants, and no nation has been more receptive to immigration than the United States. But the inability of people to distinguish between legal and illegal immigration is as astonishing as it is farcical. By the tenor of the debate, an observer would assume that anyone opposed to illegal immigration is opposed to immigration generally. That is a canard, one that is bolstered by the semantic games played – played extremely well – by the left. In the recent past, the term “illegal immigrant” has become a pejorative and replaced by “undocumented immigrant,” as if the problem is mere paperwork. By that logic, shoplifting is just an “undocumented acquisition,” a shopper frustrated by the failure to exchange the right paper (i.e., money) with the merchant.

The more recent past has seen advocacy for the “Dreamers,” another inspired euphemism that refers to children brought here illegally as minors by their illegal immigrant parents. The euphemism is a marketer’s delight; who could be against a “Dreamer” but a nasty troglodyte? If they would be referred to by a more accurate moniker, such as CHIIPS (Children of Illegal Immigrants ParentS), somehow their cause wouldn’t seem as fetching. And this is so notwithstanding the sympathy that any normal person has for their plight, brought and raised here, Americans in all but name.

What exacerbates this debate is the extremes on both sides that reflect dueling values. It seems odd that neither side recognizes that there are competing values that must somehow be accommodated and can only be accommodated through reasonable compromise that should leave both extreme camps somewhat unhappy but most people gratified that a permanent solution has been achieved. Not to oversimplify too much, but at its core, the conflict pits chesed (kindness) against tzedek (justice).

Thus advocates of unrestricted immigration present as paragons of compassion and morality, support stable families, dismiss crimes of illegal aliens as aberrations and unrepresentative of most illegals, and recognize that these immigrants often do work that Americans spurn and thus help the economy and the business climate. That is by and large true, although it doesn’t account for the anguished sense that one vicious crime committed by someone who should not be here is one too many, and it totally ignores the unfairness implicit in rewarding lawbreakers (illegal immigrants) while penalizing foreigners who applied for immigration through regular channels and are waiting their turn to immigrate lawfully. To reward lawbreakers by granting them amnesty incentivizes more law-breaking, and to grant even temporary relief without taking elementary measures of self-defense (such as a wall, increased security along the border, an end to chain migration and the like) is an exercise in futility as it just encourages even more illegal conduct.

These advocates also reject the notion that there is a particular American identity, and so do not mind that new immigrants (especially illegal) often do not make even the slightest effort to assimilate into the American culture and value system such as was common among our immigrant parents and grandparents. To them, talk of an “American ethos” is a synonym for “white supremacy.” Whatever that is supposed to mean, it is perceived as a compelling argument that should stifle all debate. But part of the polarization that has roiled America for almost two decades has been engendered by the diminution of an American “character,” and avoiding this issue will only make the situation worse and potentially irreparable. It is ironic that some of the loudest advocates for unlimited immigration to America are also some of the loudest voices castigating the country and its citizens as racists, sexists, xenophobes, etc., which begs the question: why would anyone want to live in such a country? And yet people still want to come – by the millions.

By the same token, proponents of restrictive immigration policies sometimes do not recognize the abject conditions that exist in some of these countries that “lack infrastructure, opportunity and stability” that drive myriads of people to want to leave their birthplaces, homes and sometimes families to seek opportunity in the United States. It is as if they don’t realize that America remains a magnet for the rest of the world, and what is often considered a “problem” here would be a blessing in much of the rest of the world. They should also recognize the humanitarian interest in formalizing the status of the CHIIPS; there is something awry when – as has happened – a CHIIP on active duty in the US military can face, or his parents can face, deportation.

Immigration can be boon to a country even as it can also undermine social harmony. Every new wave of immigration brings with it a criminal element; even immigrant Jews in the early 20th century had a criminal underworld although we outgrew it after several decades. (Look it up: there were Jewish mobsters who would not murder on Shabbat out of respect for their observant parents.)

A zero tolerance policy is in order for illegal aliens who commit crimes. Otherwise, the compromise being suggested strikes me as fair: a big wall that prevents infiltrations and smuggling, increased security at the borders, legalizing the status of the CHIIPS (or Dreamers) over time even allowing full citizenship if appropriate after a decade or more from the bill’s passing, and even finding some legal status for the current illegals whose only crime to date was crossing into America illegally.

Of course, it’s not perfect. Law and order proponents (“yikov hadin et hahar”) will be dismayed by rewarding any illegality. Unlimited immigration proponents will cry foul at any restrictions or limitations on full acceptance of non-citizens as citizens. In the broad middle, a solution is to be found that aspires to fairness and justice, and effects the proper balance between chesed and tzedek.

The partisans can keep fighting about this issue for a few more decades or leaders acting in good faith (if there are any left) can act. Which is more likely? We will see.

Rabbi Steven Pruzansky is the spiritual leader of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun, a synagogue consisting of nearly 600 families located in Teaneck, New Jersey, and one of the most vibrant centers of Orthodox Jewish life today.

Posted on February 5, 2018 on Rabbi Pruzansky’s Blog
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