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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Rabbi Mark Diamond stood on the border with Mexico on a brisk February day, alongside the Rev. Alexei Smith of the Catholic Archdiocese, the Rev. Mary Glasspool of the Episcopal Diocese and a host of clergy from Presbyterian, Methodist and United Church of Christ ministries.

All of them peered through the corrugated steel wall at the rough miles between countries. The scene evoked thoughts of the old adage Mexicans invoke about their country: “So far from God, so close to the United States!”

Diamond, the American Jewish Committee’s Los Angeles director, who arranged the clerics’ 25-member fact-finding mission, is hoping to bridge a comparable distance — between a life of promise and a life of uncertainty — for millions of noncitizens in the United States.

Diamond’s key role in organizing this gathering was no isolated communal act. After months of delay, the U.S. Senate is set to vote on the most comprehensive immigration reform legislation in 27 years. And Jewish groups across the country are acting together in a way characteristic of the community on few issues besides Israel.

“It’s about the right thing to do,” said Robert Gittelson, co-founder of Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, and a Republican. In op-ed pieces and interviews, Gittelson, a retired Jewish businessman from California’s San Fernando Valley, has called certain GOP strategies on immigration reform “un-biblical” and “cruel.”

Those leading an active push for the bill, which will offer a path to citizenship for some of the nation’s 11 million undocumented aliens, include the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Bend the Arc and the National Council of Jewish Women.

The Senate vote — and the even harder struggle that will follow in the Republican-controlled House — represents the fulfillment of a sustained campaign by the Jewish community for immigration reform, which has built momentum over the past decade.

Whether or not the necessary votes are mustered from both houses to land a historic immigration law reform bill on President Obama’s desk, Jewish outreach, particularly in the Southwest — home to the largest share of America’s emerging and increasingly powerful ethnic and interfaith populations — promises to be politically and socially influential beyond the issue it addresses.

California, with 2.6 million undocumented residents, is a front line in the battle for this reform. And a Jewish establishment ever mindful of its need to operate through alliances and coalitions to advance its own interests is not blind to the implications of the issue in a country whose demography is shifting rapidly. In addition to working with Latino groups, the ADL’s Southwest regional office has forged alliances with Asian groups representing undocumented Koreans, Chinese, Filipino and other Asian Pacific immigrants in the Southland.

“It’s the ethical thing to do,” said HIAS president and CEO Mark Hetfield, of the community’s immigration reform activism. But he quickly added, “It’s in our strategic interest.”

Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, reflects the deepening relationship that Jewish groups are developing through their visibility on the immigration issue.

“I really admire the way that the Jewish community has gone deep in support of immigration reform,” Salas told the Forward. A 15-year veteran of immigration rights activism, Salas fondly recalled a 2006 mass mobilization, when a procession through L.A. streets began with a cantor blowing a shofar and singing “Let my people stay!”

Salas counted efforts by Jewish organizations as second only to Catholic groups in their impact. A key factor, she said, is that HIAS and the AJC, founded at the height of Jewish immigration more than a century ago, have a built-up institutional expertise at integrating new arrivals into American society, with programs, legal resources and family services already in place — but now serving Spanish speakers instead of Yiddish.

The Ford Foundation recently awarded a two-year $1 million grant to the AJC’s Bridging America Project, which is planning “joint advocacy workshops in Dallas, New York and Washington, D.C.; a ‘national conversation’ among Latino and Jewish leaders about issues of mutual concern, and conferences in Houston, Miami and New Jersey on the economic benefits of immigration, among other activities.

Salas has also worked closely with the ADL, which keeps a keen eye on extremist groups that have set up vigilante patrols on the border between the United States and Mexico. An ADL study reported that “violent incidents against illegal immigrants have been brutal and are occurring with greater regularity, further intensifying the atmosphere of fear and suspicion on both sides of the border.” The ADL has also tracked a rise in hate crimes, discrimination cases and bigotry against Latinos.

In L.A. — a city where Latinos are nearly half the population and whose new mayor, Eric Garcetti, boasts both Jewish and Mexican heritage — Salas’s group also works with the Progressive Jewish Alliance, the Jewish Labor Committee and Bend the Arc, a progressive national Jewish group, in pushing for immigrant labor protections.

“It’s not a one-way street,” Salas said. When it comes to Israel, the Latina activist suggested, the two groups’ relationship may help to modify anti-Israel viewpoints and foster dialogue rather than demonization. “It comes up,” Salas said, referring to the Middle East issue, “and there’s a perspective: ‘Isn’t this [U.S. treatment of Latinos] the same as in Israel with the Palestinians?’ It’s an opportunity to talk that through, to talk in the context of global immigrant policy, where people can be critical, but in good faith.”

Newly arrived Latinos tend to show higher rates of anti-Semitism, said Amanda Susskind, the ADL’s Pacific Southwest regional director. She attributed the phenomenon, which shows up in surveys, to “exposure to some religious teachings.” But the next generation, she said, is no different in its relationship with Jews than the rest of Americans.

Asians are also active in coalitions with Jewish groups addressing immigration issues. “We appreciate the partnership with our Jewish allies,” said Betty Hung, policy director of the L.A.–based Asian Pacific American Legal Center. An estimated 3 million undocumented U.S. residents are Asian. California counts the nation’s largest Asian population without legal resident status — about 400,000. APALC has been an active participant in the ADL’s Asian Jewish Initiative, founded in 2006, which brings together civic, business, academic and faith leaders in the L.A. community for social mixers, awards dinners and educational programs.

For all this organizational solidarity, opponents of the reform legislation are not hard to find in the Jewish community.

One outspoken Jewish opponent is Stephen Steinlight, a former director of national affairs for AJC who criticizes the bill as “amnesty” for illegal immigrants and opposes any “pathway to citizenship” for them.

“My views changed,” he told the Forward, explaining his break with the AJC and his alliance with the conservative Center for Immigrations Studies. “AJC made no distinction between legal and illegal immigration,” he said.

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.

Gittelson’s CCIR co-founder is Samuel Rodriguez, a politically conservative evangelical Christian who is president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. Despite their reservations, Gittelson said, he and Rodriguez are standing with progressives on immigration reform. “When it comes to this issue, we see eye to eye, or at least 90%.” He has recently joined AJC’s Immigration Task Force.

In Washington, as the bill has been pulled apart and slapped together, the Jewish community has advanced strong arguments for what should be in it — and what shouldn’t.

Family reunification is high on the list of must-haves. Border security is ranked low. Border security is a valid concern, Diamond acknowledged, something he learned firsthand on his trip to the border near Tijuana. “But the issue is how we are deploying our resources,” he said. “Are we targeting gun smugglers and sex traffickers, or are we targeting that 27-yearold man who’s been deported and is trying to get back to his family?”

The legislative package submitted to the Senate also notably does not include the Uniting American Families Act, sponsored by Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy. This measure would have allowed an American citizen or permanent resident who was lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender to petition for immigrant status on behalf of his or her same-sex partner as an immediate relative.

This aspect of the bill is crucial to many Jewish activists. A coalition of nearly 100 New York interfaith leaders, including 37 rabbis, signed a letter to New York Senator Charles Schumer, urging his support for equal protections for LGBT Americans and their families. To their dismay, Schumer convinced his Democratic colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee to drop the measure from the bill, arguing that its inclusion would cost the support of key Republicans. Citing their own head counts, many of the measure’s supporters vehemently reject this argument.

One victory that was won by Jews is a provision that directly involves Jewish interests: The Lautenberg Amendment, first passed in 1989, granted immigrant status to victims of religious persecution in their native lands. The law allowed the emigration of hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews and was extended in 2004 to cover Christians, Baha’is, Jews and other religious minorities fleeing Iran.

The law continues to assist religious minorities from those countries and from Southeast Asia. The new bill makes the law — which previously required annual renewal by Congress — permanent. Jewish activists saw that win as a fitting tribute to the late New Jersey senator Frank Lautenberg.

Ira Handelman, chair of AJC’s Los Angeles Public Policy Committee, said that if and when the legislation becomes law, the interfaith and immigrant-activist coalitions in which Jewish organizations are now involved may move on to tackle other issues. These include the ongoing national debates over education policy, economic development and social justice, apart from immigration.

“Just because they sign something,” Handelman said, “doesn’t mean that’s the end. It’s the beginning.”

Contact Rex Weiner at rexweiner@forward.com


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