Passover story reverberates in 21st-century immigration

Immigration restrictionists frequently charge that American Jewish attitudes about immigration are mired in a sepia-toned time warp in which bubbes in babushkas and wide-eyed zaydes are still hobbling off boats from the old country.

Sentimentalities aside, we must not lose sight of the fact that Jews are a religious and ethical people — the bearers of an ancient tradition whose messages take on even greater immediacy as we celebrate Passover.

We are taught to internalize the lesson that is repeated throughout the Torah and the Talmud: that we must “welcome the stranger,” “not oppress the stranger,” “protect the stranger,” “have one law for the stranger and the citizen among you,” because “you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

In other words, for most Jewish Americans, immigration in the 21st century is far more nuanced, melding parochial interests with universal Jewish values and our national interests as Americans.

Today, as low-skilled Latin American and Asian workers try to get into the United States legally or illegally, we are witnessing a striking parallel to our own Jewish American history. We remember that when massive waves of Jewish immigrants arrived in the U.S. at the turn of the last century, there were few visa requirements, so it was relatively easy to be admitted legally. By the early 1920s, however, severe restrictions had been established. Some Jews began resorting to illegal entry. Others still tried to enter legally and were denied access, with tragic consequences during the Holocaust.

Against this background, it is important to understand the diverse goals, hopes, needs and expectations the Jewish community holds for America’s immigration system.

With 10 percent of American Jews foreign born, Jewish self-interest requires a system that facilitates Jewish immigration and protects Jewish refugees coming to our shores from places they are not welcome. Yet it is neither moral nor practical to carve out a system that admits Jews but restricts others, slamming the door to America behind us.

We additionally have a need for a vibrant economy now and in the future. While the economic analysis of immigration is certainly complex, the argument that our country needs significant immigration to continue its prosperity is strong.

Since 1990, immigrants have started one of every four U.S. venture-backed public companies, especially in the technology arena. American immigrants founded or co-founded some of the world’s most prominent tech companies, among them Intel, Sun Microsystems, eBay, Yahoo! and Google. Forty percent of companies operating in high-tech manufacturing today were started by immigrants.

In addition, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has said we will need to raise immigration levels to 3.5 million people annually to overcome the effects of baby boomers retiring from the workforce.

The Jewish community also requires federal policies that enhance community and national security. Jews need real security, and real security will come only from careful analysis and policymaking. The vast majority of undocumented workers are not dangerous actors against U.S. interests. They need attention from the U.S. government, but not from those charged with keeping our homeland safe. Immigration agents waste valuable resources chasing busboys and nannies.

One of the best ways to enhance our security is to develop policies that promote the integration of newcomers while valuing American diversity. When allowed to truly integrate, all groups become Americans, even while keeping alive their individual heritages. That is what allowed us to become fully Jewish and fully American. It also is the reason you can still get great sauerkraut in Philadelphia or Cincinnati while knowing that the business of ordering it will be conducted in English and not German.

Embracing that diversity always has been a hallmark of the American Jewish community, demonstrated by the prevalence of Jewish community relations councils across the United States that build bridges with other ethnic and religious groups to achieve common goals. As a people who have been targeted by hate crimes and violent language for centuries, we stand with these groups when immigrants of other backgrounds are today’s targets.

We Jews must remain deeply engaged with the challenges of American immigration. When some 500 Mexicans die each year on our southern border trying to reach this country, it is no less our problem.

Yet we must also unpack the answers to some critical questions: How generous should we be to people who are fleeing persecution? If practically speaking we cannot deport 12 million people, is it better to leave them in the margins of society or create a package of enhanced enforcement, new immigration opportunities, and legalization and integration programs? What policies best promote the integration of newcomers? Since we cannot accept everyone in the world, what are the criteria for a controlled, liberal immigration system?

Though our specific answers to these fundamental questions may vary, as a community we must stay mindful of our time in Egypt by seizing the opportunity to fight the forces of immigration restriction as we seek to create a 21st century American Jewish movement for immigrants and refugees.

Gideon Aronoff is the president and CEO of HIAS, the international immigration agency of the American Jewish community. This piece was written for JTA.