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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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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