With Arizona’s governor, Jan Brewer, recently signing into law a very restrictive and controversial bill addressing the issue of illegal immigration in that state, the opening shot has been fired on our next major political battlefield – immigration reform.
At first blush, it would appear that the issue of immigration reform is one of those topics around which Americans are united, with the overwhelming majority agreeing across party lines that massive federal immigration reform is both necessary and long overdue. However, appearances can be deceiving, for such agreement ends right there; with the belief that immigration reform is sorely needed. Beyond that point, our nation is truly fractured between those who feel that our immigration policies must be liberalized and those who feel that they must be made more severe and be more diligently enforce. A recent New York Times / CBS News Poll on reactions to the Arizona law indicate that 51% of those polled feel that the law is about right, with 9% saying that it does not go far enough, while 36% feel that it has gone too far and 4% having no opinion.
The new Arizona law obviously is a manifestation of the point of view of those who wish to see more restrictive immigration laws. No sooner did Governor Brewer sign it into law than we started hearing from several political hopefuls across the land, seeking to gain mileage for their own campaigns by calling for their states to follow Arizona’s example. Here in Iowa, two of the three candidates for the Republican gubernatorial nomination immediately jumped on that bandwagon. The third – former governor, Terry Branstad – was not far behind, supporting the concept of sterner immigration laws but cautioning that since we are not a “border” state, we should not try to duplicate the Arizona law but rather tailor one to better meet our state’s particular needs.
It will come as no surprise to those who know me that regarding immigration reform, I fall on the liberal side of this issue. However, what may come as a surprise to all is that as liberal as I am on this topic, I am not nearly as liberal as many of my fellow liberal allies would like me to be. I find myself standing in an uncomfortable no man’s land; too liberal for the conservatives among us, and too conservative for the liberals.
So where do I stand?
First of all, I am distressed by the new Arizona law. I, like all of its critics, fear that in spite of whatever assurances Governor Brewer may offer, still fundamentally, it is a racist law. No matter how well trained the Arizona police may be, they still will not be able to avoid falling into the trap of racial profiling. Indeed, the only way that they could avoid such profiling is by stopping and checking everyone’s citizenship credentials – and we all know that is never going to happen. At the end of the day, the only individuals who they will stop and request documentation from will be Latinos. That, in and of itself, is a litmus test to the law’s racial bias. After all, here we see the underlying assumption that the only illegal aliens in our midst are Hispanic. Could it not be possible that there might also be illegal aliens from Norway or Denmark or England or Italy, or dare I say, that threatening national entity on our northern border – Canada? Of course there could be! If there are people from those nations, and others like them, living in our country, it is only logical to assume that some of those people are living here illegally. Yet to focus these stop-&-searches exclusively on Latinos is just as unjust and racially prejudice as when our nation, during World War II, chose to intern as enemy aliens only those of Japanese descent, and never even considered doing likewise to those of German or Italian descent.
“Absurd!” you may think. But I turn your attention to a recent movie; “The Proposal.” Of course this was a romantic comedy, but it did carry a sharp edged message, that message being that not all illegal immigrants need to come from south of the border. Some can even come from Canada. Yet when we identify the problems associated with illegal immigration as being solely Latino problems, whether we like to admit it or not, that is racism, pure and simple.
When I consider our current immigration laws, I cannot help but be troubled by how restrictive they are. Somehow, we have forgotten that we are a nation of immigrants. All those people who flocked to our shores in the 17th, 18th, 19th and the very beginning of the 20th centuries, who settled this land, founded this nation, and built it to be the world power it is today, were all immigrants or recent descendants of immigrants. The Puritans at Plymouth Rock were immigrants. The English in Jamestown and the Dutch in New Amsterdam were all immigrants. Most Americans today do not have to search far on our family trees to find our immigrant ancestors. My grandparents came to this country from Russia and the Austro-Hungarian empire at the beginning of the 20th century. I expect that most of the readers of this blog can claim similar immigrant roots, going back to their great grandparents if not their grandparents. Today, each and every one of us enjoy all the freedoms and pleasures of living in America because at one time, this country opened its doors to our immigrant ancestors. In those days, it truly was the land of opportunity; what my Jewish ancestors referred to as Die Goldene Medina, “The Golden Land.” They came here with nothing or next to nothing, started at the bottom of the social ladder and worked their way up. It was hard going, but they did it. They did it, primarily because they were permitted to do it.
But all that changed in the 1920’s. Many forces coalesced to re-frame American immigration policies and attitudes. Following World War I there was a renewed interest in isolationism; the desire to cut off America from involvement with the outside world. As a result, in spite of the fact that President Woodrow Wilson was the primary architect of the League of Nations, our nation chose not to join it. Then there was the Communist scare. After the Russian Revolution, there was great fear in this country that the overthrow of America was next on the Communists’ agenda. That fear was translated into a fear of immigrants being potential Communist agents. There was even the growing popularity of the racist pseudo-science of eugenics. In 1916, a man by the name of Madison Grant published a book entitled THE PASSING OF THE GREAT RACE which became a very popular read in our nation. This book went through many printings and by 1937 had sold over 1,600,000 copies in our country. This book espoused the eugenics racial hygiene theory, as it proclaimed the superiority of the Northern European races, and warned of the racial threat posed by the admission to our country of people of inferior races. Then, of course, there was the eternal concern about immigrant workers competing for jobs against “real Americans.” As a result of these factors and others, in 1921, Congress passed the Immigrant Restriction Act, the goal of which was to maintain the racial balance of our country. It intended to achieve this by limiting future immigration to a quota of a nation-by-nation maximum of 3% of the number of people from that nation who were living in this country in 1890. This law was superseded by the more restrictive Immigration Act of 1924, which reduced the quota to 2% and also prohibited the immigration of East Asians. In 1952, while the Immigration and Nationality Act did abolish the racial restrictions applying to immigration from East Asia, it did affirm the quota system in its 1924 form. It should be noted that President Harry Truman vetoed the bill, speaking in his veto message of “the cruelty of carrying over into this year of 1952 the isolationist limitations of the 1924 bill.” He further went on to say, “In no other realm of our national life are we so hampered and stultified by the dead hand of the past, as we are in this field of immigration.” As a Jew, it does not go unnoticed that Truman’s objections to this bill were in good part based upon the understanding that its retention of the quota system was in fact an intentional continued refusal to open America’s doors to so many Eastern European Jews who survived the Holocaust. Unfortunately, Truman’s veto was overridden by a vote of 278 to 113 in the House and 57 to 26 in the Senate.
I suspect that rarely has there been a time in our nation’s history when immigrant groups did not have to confront some sort of prejudice when coming to, or trying to come to our country. There seems always to have been those Americans who have treated newcomers with fear and hatred. It is ironic that of all people, it was the Native Americans who served as a major exception to this rule. for they graciously welcomed the Pilgrim immigrants to their shores and aided them in their time of need. Probably no groups in our society know of this hostility to newcomers to America better than the Jews and the Catholics. It was home grown antisemitism which kept the immigration doors locked to all those European Jews who unsuccessfully sought an American refuge from Nazi persecution. And as for the Catholics, starting in the 1850’s they suffered at the hands of the members of the Know Nothing Party, whose goal it was to put an end to immigration, particularly targeting Irish and Italian Roman Catholic immigration. Such opposition to immigration and hatred of immigrants is nothing new in our country. It is a challenge which we faced in the past, just as we must face it now.
Yet in spite of our nation’s disturbing history of resistance to newly arrived immigrant groups, I do not believe that such hostility is an accurate reflection of the American spirit. Rather, I believe that while there have been those among us who have actively rejected and discriminated against the immigrants of their day, still the American ideal remained, and I pray still remains, that our land should be a safe haven and a land of opportunity for all newcomers. As a Jew, I am profoundly proud of the fact that emblazoned on a plaque inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty are words of welcome, penned by a fellow Jew, the poetess Emma Lazarus. I choose to believe that the words of her poem – “The New Colossus” – still remain America’s ultimate values statement on immigration to our shores:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame,
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” It was in this spirit that my grandparents were welcomed to this land. This was and should remain truly one of the most important of American values, fundamental to American life ever since the very first settlers crossed the Atlantic and set foot on our shores. But somewhere along the way, there are those Americans who seem to have forgotten this. If the poll on the public response to the Arizona immigration law is correct, then somewhere along the way, not only has the flame on that famous lamp gone out, but the arm which proudly raised that lamp has been lowered and the lamp itself has been dropped. Perhaps nothing has brought this sad fact into sharper relief for me than an experience I had while on the way to Postville, Iowa, to participate in a rally in support of the immigrant workers who were caught up in that now famous raid. My wife, a friend, and I were just outside of Postville when we stopped at a gas station convenience store for a break. Parked next to us were a carload of Chicagoans, one of whom was dressed up as the Statue of Liberty, complete with body makeup. Seeing the “Statue” we assumed both that they were heading toward the rally and were coming as supporters. However, as we approached them and engaged in conversation, while we learned that they indeed were heading to Postville, their purpose was to participate in a counter-rally. It would seem that for them, the Statue of Liberty had somehow been transformed from its original symbol of welcome to immigrants to one which was intended to guard our shores against the invasion of immigrants. When we Americans choose to forget our own immigrant roots and how we are the direct beneficiaries of our nation’s earlier open immigration policy, xenophobia – fear of strangers – becomes the order of the day. While there are those today who try to crown it as a virtue, I cannot help but reflect upon the fact that in the Reform Jewish prayerbook for the High Holy Days, xenophobia is mentioned as one of the sins for which we are instructed to communally confess.
All of this particularly disturbs me as a Jew. For Jewish tradition is very clear on this matter. The Torah repeatedly charges us to treat the “stranger” in our midst as the “home-born”, with dignity, compassion, and justice. It repeatedly reminds us to recall “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” As we once suffered under the mistreatment of the Egyptians because we were strangers, we need to resolve to be better than that when we deal with the strangers in our midst. There is no quota system in the Torah, nor is there a call for racial profiling to be found there.
Considering all these factors, I firmly believe that we need to pry open our nation’s doors to immigration. We need to return to a time when we were welcoming of newcomers and willing to share the American dream and hope with those so desperately in need of both.
Obviously, today is not the 19th century nor the very beginnings of the 20th. Times have changed and situations have changed, and therefore, so must our approach to immigration. We cannot simply re-open Ellis Island and hang out a generic welcome sign. This, being the 21st century, we need to establish a 21st century response to our immigration challenges.
Of course, the first challenge we face today is the presence of so many illegal immigrants/undocumented workers residing within our borders. The approach taken by the state of Arizona basically has been to round them all up and ship them all out.
I would take another approach. I would like to see our nation offer each and every one of these illegal aliens an amnesty. I say amnesty rather than citizenship because I believe that American citizenship is both a privilege and a responsibility, and therefore should neither be treated lightly or merely given away in the manner of a supermarket promotional. While I believe that we must do a far better job in making the possibility of American citizenship available to as many people as possible who truly seek it, still that citizenship should be earned. Ergo, I would offer amnesty, not citizenship.
I envision such amnesty as an opening of the path to citizenship. While the amnesty would be open to all, yet if one accepts the amnesty, then they also must accept the responsibility to enter into the established process of naturalization. Like all other immigrants, they must take the classes which teach about what it means to be an American, they must take and pass the tests, and of course, if they are successful in the process, they must take the oath of loyal citizenship to our nation.
Let me clarify what I mean when I say, “I believe that we must do a far better job in making the possibility of American citizenship available to as many people as possible who truly seek it.” By making that possibility available, I am not just talking about offering classes. I am also talking about offering whatever social supports are necessary to enable these individuals to be able to maintain their lives and their families while they are going through the naturalization process. We need to do whatever is necessary to make this opportunity for these people a realistic opportunity and not just a symbolic one.
If there are those who refuse the amnesty, or who accept the amnesty but refuse to go through the naturalization process, then these individuals are truly illegal aliens, for they have been given the opportunity to become American citizens but have actively chosen to reject it. It would appear to be their desire to reside in our nation, to take advantage of all the benefits offered by our nation, but not to become at one with our nation. This is simply unacceptable. If a person wants to enjoy the benefits of America, then that person has to accept the responsibilities that go hand-in-hand with being an American. If they are unwilling to accept those responsibilities then they have no place in America. While the opportunity to become an American should be open to as many as possible, still one must be an American, or an aspiring American, in order to enjoy the benefits of our country and reside within our midst. For those who choose otherwise, then the door swings both ways. Not only are they welcomed to leave but it is appropriate to usher them out.
Addressing the issue of the illegal aliens in our midst is only one of our challenges. For there are plenty more potential illegal aliens where they came from; there are plenty of others who are and will be seeking entry into our country but who at this time still reside outside of our borders. They are the potential illegal aliens of the future. Well, the future begins now. As we address the issue of dealing with the illegal aliens in our midst, we also have to address the issue of how to we prevent massive illegal immigration into our country in the future.
My response is not by building higher walls to keep them out but rather by establishing a better and more open and just system to responsibly welcome them in. The first thing that must go is the quota system. America should not be about trying to maintain some sort of ethnic balance from the past. We should be about making America available to all those who desire and deserve to be Americans.
We need to develop a system which effectively screens potential immigrants. It needs to be an accessible system so that it is very clear that legal immigration to America is indeed a very real possibility. Yet at the same time it needs to be a system which does protect America. It needs to be a system which screens out those who may pose a threat to our people, such as convicted felons (as defined by American law and not the perversion of law promulgated by some dictatorships) and those who carry contagious diseases. It needs to be a system which screens out those who are unwilling to invest themselves in the process of obtaining American citizenship. Such screening is not discrimination. It is wisdom. For while welcoming as many aspiring Americans as possible is the right thing to do to, still it is the wise thing to try to assure that those whom we welcome will add to the strength and the character of our nation, and not detract from it.
Intimately tied to the issue of immigration has been the struggle over language. For years now, “English Only” laws have been a center of much debate in our nation. There are those who hold that such laws protect the very fabric of American culture, and there are those who hold that such laws are the essence of racism. Personally, I have been torn by this debate. I see both sides and stand uncomfortably in the middle. English is our national language. As such, I firmly believe that all those who aspire to American citizenship must learn to speak the language. It is probably the most important key that opens the door to the fullness of American life. To make believe that it is unnecessary for our aspiring immigrants to learn our language is pure folly. Indeed, to minimize or deny our immigrants’ need of English skills is to condemn them to remaining on the lowest rungs of the American socioeconomic ladder. Now that is discrimination! I find it ironic that those who would work hardest to protect our immigrant population would at the same time promote an anti-English ideology which would in the end only hurt those they wish to protect.
That being said, I am not completely in favor of English Only laws. I do suspect that those who promote them are doing so for less than idealistic reasons; that there is an underlying prejudice embedded within them. While I do believe, for example, that an electoral ballot should only be published in English, for English skills should be a prerequisite for American citizenship, while voting is a privilege of citizenship, I do not believe that such things as exams for a drivers license should be only published in English. These people are going to drive on our streets, and they are not necessarily going to wait until they pass their citizenship exam to do so. Indeed, if they are living in a community like mine, they need to drive to survive, for in such communities one cannot depend upon public transportation. Simply as a matter of public safety, I would prefer that they be permitted to take their driving exams in whatever language they speak so that they can become licensed drivers, and hopefully safe drivers. The same would go for access to medical care. Regardless of language, people get sick. Everyone deserves to be able to communicate what ails them to medical professionals. Therefore, when it comes to the question of English and immigration, while we need to be assertive about the importance of acquiring a working knowledge of our national language, we should not be absolute. We need to seek out the appropriate middle ground; something the advocates on both sides of this issue have refused to do.
No presentation on immigration would be complete if it did not address the issue of employment. For almost as long as immigrants have flocked to America, there have been those Americans who have opposed immigration on the grounds that the new immigrants would be taking away their jobs. Yet when we look at the history of American immigration, and when we look at the immigrant situation in our nation today, we can clearly see that such a charge is patently false. It is rare indeed when new immigrants enter our society and find themselves somewhere in the middle or top of the employment food chain. Far more often than not, they are on the bottom of that chain, doing work that other Americans prefer not to do. So it is today. Our immigrant, and particularly our illegal immigrant population are deeply involved in what might be called menial labor. They are janitors. They are dishwashers. They are maids. They work in such difficult industries as meat packing. Theirs are jobs that the overwhelming majority of Americans would never consider doing unless their situation was absolutely desperate. Rather than “stealing” jobs in our society, they are filling a very real need. This has been the way with all American immigrants. The first generation does whatever needs to be done in order to keep their family fed. They send their children to school and it is that next generation that starts to take their group up the socioeconomic ladder.
In successfully addressing the issue of immigration reform, when it comes to jobs, we also address another serious flaw in our current system. That flaw is the abuse of illegal immigrants by unscrupulous employers. There are those who enjoy the financial benefits of maintaining a significant population of illegal immigrants in our nation. These illegal immigrants are nothing more than the victims of such employers. These employers pay them substandard wages and provide them with little or no benefits. Worse yet, they hold them captive, enslaving them with the threat of being turned over to the immigration authorities. As the raid on the Agriprocessors kosher meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa revealed, this system subjects these illegal immigrants to all sorts of collateral abuses, including sexual abuse and the flagrant violation of child labor laws. All this would be brought to a grinding halt if these people were not forced to live under the radar in our country. If they could be granted official status and with that, official protection. Indeed, such an elimination of an illegal immigration work force would force such employers to offer legitimate wages, benefits, and working conditions. It would create a more open and competitive jobs market. Yes, prices would go up, but is it not about time that the money we Americans save due to lower prices stop being blood money?
Emma Lazarus, the Statue of Liberty poetess, is one of my American Jewish heroes. Part of me is happy that she is not around today to see what our country has done to its immigrants. It would break her heart! Yet another part of me wishes that she was among us still for she would not be one to stand idly by on this issue. She would be a strong voice reminding us of our immigrant heritage and of our responsibility to offer to others today the blessing which our ancestors received when they arrived on these shores.