In passing President Bush’s Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act last month, a bipartisan Senate coalition has shown itself to be suffering from the dubious, irresponsible mindset articulated in Yiddish as “Sie machen sich nicht wissentig” and by Thomas Aquinas as “Ignorantia Affectata”: willfully making themselves unknowing while feigning ignorance about inconvenient facts.
A majority of Senate Democrats chose to pander to Latinos, abandoning principle and the party’s historical base to placate a potentially larger electorate. A minority of the chamber’s Republicans, meanwhile, gave the service sector, agro-business and other industries employing unskilled workers a bottomless pool of cheap labor.
All senators who voted for the bill ignored broader ethical, social and environmental concerns, and most ominously the law of unintended consequences. Their caricature immigration reform is pure special-interest politics, denying the very idea of a national interest. Not so incidentally, it also threatens Jewish allegiances, interests and dishonors Jewish values.
Bush’s bill rejects America’s tradition of generous diverse legal immigration, contorting it to create an ethnically homogeneous underclass. It rewards lawbreakers and rule-benders. The anger it evokes in ordinary Americans reflects neither xenophobia nor bigotry, despite supporters’ stereotyping opponents as right-wing Know-Nothings.
Americans across the spectrum view immigration as sacred in the history of their families and country; they are appalled to see it profaned by lawbreakers, unscrupulous businessmen and myopic politicians. As sociologist Alan Wolfe has noted, differentiating legal immigration from illegal immigration “is one of the most tenaciously held distinctions in middle-class America… people overwhelmingly support legal immigration and express disgust with the illegal variety.” Contrary to what some are trying to argue, the fight over the bill does not pit liberals against conservatives. Its strongest boosters are the Chamber of Commerce, Wall Street Journal and Bush — none standard bearers for progressive causes
Focusing narrowly on illegal immigration, however, misses the main point: Bush’s bill trebles legal immigration. Population explosion is the legislation’s largest impact, but in a breathtaking abdication of public trust the Senate simply did not get it. Not until the Heritage Foundation’s John Rector published a paper showing it would increase America’s population by one-third did the Senate quickly pass an amendment reducing the guest-worker program. The amendment amnesties 12 million illegal aliens, an act that simply ignores history — the amnesty offered by the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act increased illegal immigration five-fold.
Yet even 12 million amnestied illegal aliens is a drop in the bucket. Rector’s cautious estimates predict more than 66 million in 20 years — and the total will likely be larger, given that increasing individual legal immigration primes the pump.
The reason is what is called “chain immigration.” It begins with one immigrant legally bringing a spouse and minor children — keep in mind that Mexicans average four children per family — and, within a few years, after they’ve been naturalized, parents and siblings; the same process is then repeated by their relatives, ad infinitum.
Mexico’s work force is roughly 43 million. The 12 million illegal aliens granted amnesty by Bush’s bill, supplemented by only 15% of 43 million, forges a chain with 18.45 million links. Add 200,000 guest-worker families a year and an annual influx of 800,000 to 900,000 illegal aliens, and America’s population will expand by more than a third in fewer than 20 years.
The Senate also ignored the impact on the welfare system of the millions of immigrants who will rely on it but will not earn enough to pay taxes to support it. Mexican immigrant income is extremely low compared to that of American workers, and it takes decades to achieve parity.
Once a solid majority of the 12 million to be amnestied by Bush’s bill are naturalized, public entitlements to some 3.8 million households will total $19 billion annually. Chain-immigrating parents and siblings eligible for federal welfare will cost $30 billion a year — if only 10% of parents of those naturalized become residents.
The bill traduces Jewish values, sacrificing Judaism’s central tenet: pursuing justice. Citing Leviticus 19 in defense of the legislation, as some of the bill’s Jewish supporters have, is sacrilegious. This magisterial text commands us to “love the stranger for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” Note that it says love, not exploit for economic or political gain.
The bill also rejects Jeremiah’s injunction to “seek the welfare of the city where I have exiled you… in its prosperity you will find peace” (29:4-7). Massive immigration will eviscerate the social safety net — betraying America’s working poor and unemployed by exploiting immigrants is not tikkum olam.
Despite official mantras, immigrants are not only taking jobs Americans are unwilling to do. There is no labor shortage. Immigrants willingly accept low wages, thereby increasing unemployment — which is already astronomical among black men and seasonal rural workers — and depressing wages for our poorest workers.
Where is the historical Jewish concern for African Americans? Racism’s bitter legacies survive: widespread poverty, residential apartheid, unequal opportunity, generations of black men lost to the criminal justice system, implosion of the poor black family. Justice for millions of Americans who have made gigantic contributions to America’s wealth as slaves and been oppressed for centuries is unfinished business. Before importing massive poverty, let’s complete it.
Closer to home, massive immigration will obliterate Jewish power by shrinking our percentage of the population — to a fraction of 1% in 20 years. Jews possess political clout despite tiny numbers because we are concentrated in large electoral vote states, have legendary voting rates, donate significantly to both parties and dominant culture. We will retain residual influence due to campaign contributions, membership in institutional establishments and the endurance of our alliances, but the Latino vote will eventually overwhelm us.
Moreover, Jewish-Latino political interests clash. We have fought over both refugee and asylum slots: we wanted them for Soviet Jewry, Latinos for Central Americans fleeing the dirty wars in Central America. We won, but at a cost. And except for the evangelical part of the community, Latinos do not share any particularly strong bond to Israel.
We are divided by socioeconomic chasms that will not be easier to bridge than those that bedeviled black-Jewish relations. With huge numbers on their side, they will have little need for allies, compromise or concern for others’ agendas. Most troubling, survey research, including by the Anti-Defamation League, shows Latinos to be more antisemitic than any group except Muslims.
With Israel facing an existential threat from Iran, Israeli-Palestinian relations having reached bottom and global Islamism targeting Jews, hastening disempowerment is indefensible. Latino population growth is inevitable, but exponential growth is not. If we can keep the numbers within reasonable bounds — which would hasten immigrant acculturation and reduce traditional cultural bigotry — we will likely maintain our position.
Substituting knowledge for Jewish sentimentality regarding immigration means debunking myths reflecting ignorance of Jewish immigration’s uniqueness. Unlike many other newcomers to America, Jews were refugees and asylum seekers escaping religious persecution, tyranny and pogroms. Most immigrants, by contrast, are not refugees: They come to make money.
Unlike many others, Jews migrated one way. Jews did not remain loyal to antisemitic countries of origin; most learned English immediately and embraced Americanism. Millions today immigrate for economic gain while despising America and maintaining loyalty to home countries.
We can best honor our immigrant experience by advocating for more generous policies for real refugees and asylum seekers — not by pushing for legislation that betrays America’s workers, devastates America’s poor, exploits Mexicans, threatens America’s social cohesion and endangers Jewish interests.
Stephen Steinlight, senior policy analyst for the Center for Immigration Studies, is former director of national affairs at the American Jewish Committee and co-author of “Fractious Nation: Unity and Disunity in Contemporary American Life” (University of California Press-Berkeley, 2004).