Jews Unite Behind Push for Immigration Reform

Ethics and Self-Interest Drive Unusual Nationwide Effort

Rabbi Mark Diamond peers through a corrugated-iron wall along the border with Mexico. The American Jewish Committee leader is part of a nearly unprecendented push by Jewish groups for immigration reform
Rabbi Mark Diamond peers through a corrugated-iron wall along the border with Mexico. The American Jewish Committee leader is part of a nearly unprecendented push by Jewish groups for immigration reform

By Rex Weiner

Published June 26, 2013.
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Steinlight, who characterizes the pro-reform Jewish leaders as “do-gooders leaning over backwards for the aggrieved,” sees immigration as a threat to American workers, especially under-employed African Americans. Groups like AJC and HIAS, he said, are “trying to make amends for doing nothing for Jews during the Holocaust.”

Diamond acknowledged that views similar to Steinlight’s are not hard to find. “To my dismay, I have heard more than a few voices in the Jewish community — rabbis I respect, and other leaders — who have said to me, ‘This is not our problem,’” Diamond said. “My response is that this is very much a Jewish issue, one of the most critical issues facing us in this country, and certainly here in Southern California.”

For Wendy Braitman, a member of IKAR, the L.A. Jewish congregation led by Rabbi Sharon Brous that has made social activism a mitzvah, it’s also personal. “I feel like it’s my story,” she said. Braitman embodies the grassroots dimension of much of the Jewish activism on this issue. In April, Braitman sat in Senator Dianne Feinstein’s Washington office with a group of interfaith activists who paid their own way from the California lawmaker’s home state to lobby her. “I told her I was Jewish,” said Braitman, “and that the issue was of importance to Jews all over the country. As Jews we know what it’s like to live in the shadows.”

On the pro-reform Jewish right, meanwhile, support comes with the some of the same caveats that many conservatives have been using to hold up the pending legislation: that undocumented residents should be treated as lawbreakers who will be subjected to fines and blocked from full citizenship even if allowed to stay as permanent residents. Border security must also be beefed up, they demand, as a pre-condition to any reform.

Matthew Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, emphasized that the final legislative package must be a bill that “addresses the challenges of illegal immigration and securing our borders in a way that will win the support and trust of the American people.”

As an entrepreneur who built a successful garment manufacturing business, Gittelson is also focused on the bill’s labor implications. For one thing, Gittelson would like to see the cap on guest-worker visas — topped off in the Senate bill at 200,000 per year — match the actual demand for labor, which he says is 300,000 annually at the lowest.

“The Senate bill shortchanges the economy,” Gittelson maintained. He blamed unions for setting the low quota. “We need a free-market solution, not a union solution,” he said.


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