As the 112th Congress gathers steam this month, a major immigration-rights bill, the DREAM Act — which enjoys broad Jewish support and passed in the lame duck Democratic House of Representatives last year — faces a cloudy future in the new Republican-majority House.
Despite the more conservative Congress, as well as the previous Senate’s failure to pass the DREAM Act, many Jewish organizations involved with domestic policy vowed to continue making immigrant rights a top priority. Groups including the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA), American Jewish Committee (AJC), Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), had formally endorsed the act and encouraged their members to call politicians asking for their votes in favor of it.
The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act would create paths to American citizenship for qualifying non-citizen children brought to the U.S. by their parents. “It makes no sense to punish the next generation of young people,” said JALSA Director Sheila Decter, who said the act made sense for both moral and security reasons, because it would help the children of undocumented workers to ultimately benefit America’s workforce by allowing them to acquire skills rather than keeping them marginalized.
According to Decter, there are many Jewish Cuban and Israeli undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who have a stake in the DREAM Act being passed. (Though JALSA’s primary motivation in backing the legislation is to advocate for the rights of immigrants, Jewish or not.) Decter said her organization, which also has advocated for driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, primarily focused on swaying Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown’s vote, but ultimately was unsuccessful.
Decter noted that the DREAM Act failed to stir up controversy in the Jewish community, stating that most prominent Jewish conservatives have been more reluctant to speak out against this act than other domestic legislation. The Republican Jewish Coalition did not take a position on the bill. “Immigration issues are extremely tied to our history, fleeing to the U.S. from Eastern Europe,” Decter said.
Jewish elected officials all voted in favor of the DREAM Act, with the exception of Majority Leader Eric Cantor, a Republican representative from Virginia.
In a recent press release, Maryland Senator Ben Cardin, who is Jewish, praised what he called a “compassionate bill” for providing “a stringent pathway for young men and women who have graduated high school to give back to their adopted country and local communities through military service or to complete a higher education.”
While the current Jewish members of Congress are mostly liberal, moderates such as Senator Joseph Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut, supported the act. Lieberman was even a co-sponsor in March of 2009.
Richard Foltin, director of national and legislative affairs at the AJC, thinks Jewish organizations and politicians came out in strong support of the act because it represents the fundamental Jewish value of treating others as you would want to be treated. Consequently, immigration rights is something he believes is easier for the Jewish community to defend than some other controversial issues.
“Allowing young people to normalize their status is for all intents and purposes the right thing to do, and our country will certainly benefit from it,” said Foltin.
Stacy Burdett, director of government and national affairs for the ADL, said the ADL would continue to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform and that the DREAM Act is only one of the issues involved. “We will continue to reach out to our activists and have them reach out to their senators,” Burdett said. “We feel that every American should be concerned with the anti-immigrant references. For us immigration is a civil rights issue. We cannot neglect it because of politics in this climate of hostility,” added Burdett.
At the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, also an ongoing supporter of comprehensive immigration reform that includes the DREAM Act, vice president and Washington director Josh Protas sees a changed climate ahead. In the new Congress, for immigration rights overall, “we’re bracing for some challenges ahead and looking to be in a defensive position,” said Protas, who is not optimistic about DREAM moving forward now.
“I anticipate seeing more proposals focused on enforcement,” he said. “That is something that JCPA feels should be part of comprehensive immigration reform, [but] an enforcement-only approach is of concern, and I anticipate we’ll see more of a move in that direction.”
The recent shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, the Jewish Democrat who voted for the DREAM Act despite much of her Tucson district opposing it, doesn’t seem to be affecting debate around this legislation, Protas said. The resulting calls for more civic discourse “might help bring down the tenor” of anti-immigrant rhetoric in Arizona and other states, he said.