Protecting immigration rights is our duty as empathetic Jews

I am an immigrant. My parents were illegal immigrants. My ancestors were perennial immigrants. Through good fortune, I came legally to this country. But my parents, escaping the Nazis, were caught off the coast of Haifa by the British and deported as illegal immigrants.

Most readers of this column are the children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren of immigrants. As a community, our position on the current debate on immigration must be informed by this legacy.

As we remembered again at Passover, the Bible is quintessentially a tale of migrations. Our national identity is forged in “out of” and “into” experiences, from Abraham’s immigration to Canaan, and Jacob’s sons’ journey to Egypt, to the Exodus and re-immigration to the land of Israel and the forced emigrations into exile.

Out of the crucible of immigration comes one of the most powerful and often repeated ethical teachings of the Torah: “You shall not oppress the stranger. You should understand the heart of the stranger since you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 23:9).

In addressing the current immigration-related swelling of public protest and Washington partisanship, we must begin with this empathy for the stranger and oppose any legislation that will criminalize immigrants and the citizens who give them basic humanitarian aid.

The Sensenbrenner Bill (HR 4437) would do just that, along with many other provisions that threaten to turn our country into a monstrous police state. How else can we envision deporting more than 11 million people, most of whom came to this country for the very reasons we and our ancestors did: to build a better life for our children?

The now-dead Kennedy-McCain Bill (which may be revived now that Congress is back in session) is flawed in many ways but may be the most we can hope for in the current panic over illegal immigration (one wonders how much of this sudden urgency serves as a distraction from the catastrophe of the war in Iraq.)

In considering the immigration initiatives, two related issues should be made more explicit: enforcement through identification/surveillance and economic justice.

The proposals to criminalize, pursue and prosecute illegal immigrants go hand-in-hand with the Real ID Act passed by Congress last May, a measure little known to the general public. This law requires all states to electronically encode personal identification information in all driver licenses. It will make the driver license a mandatory national ID card that will become a tool in scanning the population for “unwanteds,” illegal immigrants first and foremost (more information is available on this at the ACLU’s site:

As for economic justice, the issue is complex. In the long run, illegal immigrant workers promote economic growth, though in the short term they might place a burden on social, medical and educational services. Over time, they infuse the labor force with a larger pool of younger workers and, given their larger families, enlarge the size of the next generation. Many also pay into the Social Security system but never collect benefits.

This economic growth comes, however, at a price that is often neglected: low wages that depress incomes throughout the low-wage labor market. Immigrant labor, legal and illegal, must be seen in the context of globalization and outsourcing. We generally ship raw materials and machinery for industrial production to countries where labor is cheap. When we can’t — in agriculture, construction, food services, tending our gardens and raising our kids — we reverse the direction and bring cheap labor here instead of sending the work abroad.

Labor standards codified in law should, but frequently do not, protect illegal immigrant workers. The threat of deportation makes illegal workers extremely vulnerable to low wages and exploitive work conditions.

Thus, should a “guest worker” provision be included in immigration reform (problematic in its own right as it would create a vulnerable underclass), these workers cannot be left solely dependent on their employers (as is the case in the Kennedy-McCain Bill). The program must include provisions for workers’ protection through legislation, oversight bodies, and the right to organize.

As we debate the complex issue of immigration, we must remember the commandment to “understand the heart of the stranger.”

Rachel Biale is the Bay Area regional director of Progressive Jewish Alliance,

Rachel Biale
Rachel Biale

Rachel Biale was born and raised on Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin in Israel and worked for many years as a Jewish community professional in the Bay Area.