Will Marathon Bombings Derail Immigration Reform?

Jewish Activists Redouble Push — and Press for Asylum Rule

Shifting Debate: Jewish activists join demonstration in Washington for immigration reform. Has the Boston bombing left an indelible mark on the debate?
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Shifting Debate: Jewish activists join demonstration in Washington for immigration reform. Has the Boston bombing left an indelible mark on the debate?

By Nathan Guttman

Published April 25, 2013, issue of May 03, 2013.
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Following the GOP’s defeat in the 2012 elections, which was attributed in part to the loss of the Latino electorate, Republicans have moved towards support for immigration reform. But still, not all in the party accept the notion of a path to legalization for undocumented workers. Pro-immigration advocates expressed optimism regarding the chances of reform legislation passing in the Senate. But a House version has yet to be introduced, and the battle there could be tougher. The White House has indicated that it would like to see the reform approved this summer.

For the Jewish community, immigration reform has always been an easy sell. Driven by a collective memory of earlier generations reaching America’s shores at the turn of the 20th century, the organized Jewish community has for years maintained a strong sentiment favoring welcoming immigration policy. For the current debate, Jewish groups formed the We Were Strangers Too coalition, comprising national Jewish organizations as well as local groups and synagogue denominations.

While all members of the coalition support the call for reform, some are pushing for specific amendments and provisions reflecting their Jewish interests and values. HIAS has asked lawmakers to permanently designate Iranian religious minorities, including Jews, as eligible for refugee resettlement in the United States, thus easing their processing overseas. Currently there are an estimated 700 Iranian Jews waiting to immigrate to America. The Reform movement would like to see the bill “improve family reunification procedures to include siblings, adult children and spouses of all genders.” And Bend the Arc, a progressive Jewish organization, is advocating equal rights for same-sex couples undergoing immigration procedures.

Public opinion polls show strong support among rank-and-file members of the Jewish community for a more open immigration policy, although this sentiment is not as strong among older and Republican Jews. A 2009 poll, however, also showed significant concern among American Jews over inadequate enforcement of immigration laws.

Critics of immigration reform feel that the Boston events could potentially chip away at Jewish support for the move by making the connection between a lenient immigration policy and an increase in the threat of terrorism.

“The Boston terror attacks will have a very substantial bearing on the issue and will increase public apprehension toward amnesty,” said Stephen Steinlight, senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies, a think tank opposed to immigration reform.

Steinlight, who formerly served as the American Jewish Committee’s director of national affairs, argued that the Boston Marathon attack made people understand how inept the federal government is at screening for terrorists. “This should be a serious concern for the Jewish community,” he said. “It is critical that America remains a safe place for Jews.”

Hetfield reached an opposite conclusion. He believes that only a process of legalization for those already in the country illegally will put an end to an existent “underground” made up of millions of immigrants who fear any contact with authorities. Such a process, he said, would help the government in identifying extreme elements who have entered, or might seek to enter, America.

Contact Nathan Guttman at guttman@forward.com or on Twitter, @nathanguttman


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