Immigration Debate Prompts Growing Jewish-Latino Ties

Common Ground: Jewish and Latino activists talked about their immigration experiences and looked for ways to work together in a roundtable discussion held January 10 in Durham, N.C.
Courtesy of Que Pasa Media
Common Ground: Jewish and Latino activists talked about their immigration experiences and looked for ways to work together in a roundtable discussion held January 10 in Durham, N.C.

By Nathan Guttman

Published January 27, 2010, issue of February 05, 2010.
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Even as health care reform twists in the wind, immigration policy looms as the next big political debate — and Hispanics and Jews are moving to the forefront in a burgeoning political alliance.

The next three months are seen as critical in the fight for immigration reform, but the weakening of the Democrats’ grip on Congress with the recent loss of a key Massachusetts Senate seat does not bode well for the passage of reform legislation.

The Jewish-Latino alliance on immigration issues builds on the heritage and experience of the Jewish community and on the enthusiasm and urgent needs of the Hispanic community, which has a strong interest in issues of family unification and the status of the some 12 million illegal immigrants, most of them from Latin America.

But Jewish activists also see the joint work as an opening for cooperation with the Hispanic community on other issues, such as Israel.

“If we want to engage with the Latino community on issues that are of concern for us, including Israel, we need to engage on issues that bother their community,” said Gideon Aronoff, president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. “We want to create growing bonds with the Latino community, and we cannot create these bonds if we are indifferent to the issues that are of concern to them.”

Alliance: Luis Gutierrez (left) and Charles Schumer are trying to drive reform through Congress.
Alliance: Luis Gutierrez (left) and Charles Schumer are trying to drive reform through Congress.

Some advocates view the ethnic backgrounds of the two key lawmakers leading the drive for immigration reform as symbolic of the growing alliance on the issue. In the House, the main immigration reform bill was presented Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, and in the Senate it is expected that New York’s Senator Charles Schumer will soon present his version of immigration reform legislation.

The Gutierrez bill has been praised by advocates for immigrants as providing answers to most of the concerns of the Hispanic community, but so far it has failed to gain any Republican support.

Schumer’s bill, now in the making, is expected to have more bipartisan appeal, by taking a nuanced approach to the thorny issue of providing a path to legalization for millions of illegal immigrants.

While Democratic-backed health care reform legislation was uniformly opposed by Republicans and now seems to be stuck in Congress, advocates agree that immigration reform stands no chance of passage without bipartisan support.

But immigration advocates believe that the blow suffered by health care reform supporters following the Massachusetts Senate election does not necessarily dictate the same fate for immigration reform. Indeed, said HIAS’s Aronoff, it might even help the cause, due to increased pressure on lawmakers to show progress on key issues. “All Americans have seen the gridlock in Washington and are very frustrated with it,” he said. “Now the president and Congress need to show that they can solve problems for Americans.”

But with the political clock ticking, supporters of reform fear that major legislation is becoming harder to pass, and so they set the first half of 2010 as a desired deadline for passing legislation. “Every day we get closer to the elections, the harder it becomes,” said Richard Foltin, director of national and legislative affairs at the American Jewish Committee, referring to upcoming congressional elections.

Jewish communal support for immigration reform is organized around several principles, including the need for a path to legalization for illegal immigrants; a mechanism for dealing with future immigration waves; speeding up work on family unification; integrating new immigrants into American society; and finding, as Jewish immigration advocates put it, an “effective and humane” way of enforcing immigration laws and border control.

This last point seems to be a growing concern within the Jewish community, said Jane Ramsey, executive director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs based in Chicago. Ramsey, whose organization has been working closely with Hispanic groups, stressed that while both communities strongly support immigration reform, there is still a need to instill in members of the Jewish community the importance of the issue, which for most Jews carries a symbolic, not personal, importance.

“Our community is one step removed,” she said, “and therefore it is very important to make it real for people by interacting with the Latino community.”

While the Jewish organizational world is essentially united on this issue, some have argued that the Jewish rank-and-file is not on entirely the same page as communal leaders.

The supposed divide between religious leaders of various stripes and their rank-and-file was the focus of a recent survey, sponsored by the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based group that opposes granting illegal immigrants a path to legalization and instead argues that many will return to their home countries if immigration laws are better enforced. That poll, which was conducted online by Zogby International in December, found that Jews were roughly equally divided between those who prefer a stepped-up enforcement approach and those who prefer granting legal status with a path to citizenship.

Jewish immigration advocates have questioned the survey’s methodology, but they agree that there are diverse opinions within the community. Yet the CIS poll also found that Jews were still considerably more likely than members of other religious groups to support granting legal status to illegal immigrants, a finding that immigration advocates say rings true.

The organized Jewish community is more committed than ever to immigration reform. A letter supporting immigration reform, which will be sent out to all Senate offices in early February, was signed by dozens of national Jewish organizations.

Joining forces with the Hispanic community has been a longstanding goal for Jewish groups. But what seems to be a rare chance to reform immigration laws has helped galvanize the relationship.

At a January 10 roundtable in Durham, N.C., Jewish and Latino activists shared their immigration experiences and looked for ways to work together in support of the legislation. “We broke into groups and spoke about the similarity between our grandparents’ immigration and their experience nowadays,” said Stephanie Grosser, who has been coordinating outreach efforts for HIAS.

One of the issues activists from both sides discussed was hate and hostility directed at immigrants — both past and present-day, whether they were Jewish newcomers at the turn of the 20th century or Latinos in recent decades. “After we talked about why the Jewish community cares about immigration, two Latino women from the crowd came up and hugged me,” Grosser recalled.

Cooperation between the two communities goes beyond the issue of immigration reform and includes many joint programs on the local level. On the national level, Jewish and Latino groups are part of broader coalitions organizing a Washington rally in March in favor of immigration reform, which will be preceded by advocacy work in congressional districts during the February congressional recess.

Jewish groups bring to the table their experience and well-established network of political contacts, a contribution highly appreciated by Hispanic organizers.

“For us, as newcomers to the society, this experience is extraordinary,” said Gutavo Torres, president of Casa Maryland, a Hispanic group active in the metropolitan Washington area. “They know how to work through the system, how to lobby, how to advocate. The Jewish community has a lot of experience and a lot of power.”

Jewish organizations have been increasing their efforts to reach out to the Hispanic community for several years, and most national groups have established joint programs and sponsored Jewish-Hispanic events. With the rapid growth of the Hispanic community and with its rising political clout, Jewish groups see added value in building bridges to the community.

“We are working on immigration, because it is the right thing to do, because it is part of our values,” said the AJC’s Foltin. “But the dialogue also creates better understanding for the needs of our community.”

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com






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