Support of Comprehensive Immigration Reform in the United States


American immigration policy has long reflected the tension between those who seek to welcome new immigrants and those who seek to limit their entry into the United States. Historically the Jewish community has identified closely with those supporting opportunities for newcomers. As noted in the 1995 Resolution on Immigration adopted by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now the Union for Reform Judaism), "we support those efforts that compassionately seek to regulate and to aid newcomers to this land but we oppose those that will unduly restrict immigration or burden the lives of illegal immigrants." Other resolutions adopted by the Union related to the status and treatment of immigrants include Refugees in Canada (1989), Immigration (1989) and Citizenship (1997). In 2006 the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) adopted a resolution supporting efforts seeking "comprehensive immigration reform, which would include not only better enforcement of our nation's laws, but also a guest worker program and a path to earned legalization."

Jewish Texts and Values
Both our Jewish tradition and our historical experiences lead us to support immigration policy that is compassionate and fair. The Torah teaches us to reach out to and care for vulnerable populations, including non-citizens and resident aliens: "If your brother, being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side" (Leviticus 25:35). We are repeatedly commanded to care for the needy within our extended family: "If there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements… do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman. Rather, you must open your hand and lend him sufficient for whatever he needs" (Deut. 15:7). Rabbinic Judaism also entitled non-Jewish individuals to financial and emotional support from the Jewish community in order to create a harmonious society: "Our rabbis have taught: 'we support the poor of the non-Jew along with the poor of Israel, and visit the sick of the non-Jew along with the sick of Israel, and bury the poor of the non-Jew along with the dead of Israel, in the interests of peace'" (BT Gittin 61a).

Our historical experience also sensitizes Jews to the need of family members to extend a helping hand to one another, even across borders, in times of economic hardship. As told in the Book of Genesis, during the difficult years of famine throughout the Middle East, Joseph's position in Egypt made possible the resettlement and survival of his family: "God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance... come down to me without delay-you and your children and your grandchildren, your flocks and herds, and all that is yours. There I will provide for you... (Genesis 45). The Book of Ruth similarly personalizes the required response of the Jewish community toward the immigrant. Ruth, the impoverished recent arrival to her new land, gleans alongside full Israelite citizens who are also in need-a privilege to which Ruth is entitled once she adopts her new homeland and links her fate with its citizens. From the patriarchs' and matriarchs' sojourns in foreign lands to our seminal experience as strangers in Egypt, the plight of the non-citizen resonates for Jews.

The halachic (legal) obligations to resettle family members apply to our extended family. Taken literally, we might conclude that these mandates only obligate us to work for the resettlement of Jews. However, our desire to care for members of our own extended family sensitizes us to similar claims for family reunification expressed by other immigrant groups in America. Further, our historical memory of dangerous flights in search of safe havens inspires a desire to help others in similar distress. The Union reaffirmed these views most recently by adopting the 2003 Resolution on Civil Liberties, which states our opposition to "measures that strip the power of immigration and federal judges to review decisions and exercise discretion regarding the status, detention, and deportation of non-citizens."

As a community of immigrants and refugees with a long history of sojourning in foreign lands, American Jews have a unique responsibility to ensure that the rights of non-citizens are protected by our nation's immigration policy. Just as our ancestors were permitted to reunite their families and resettle refugees from their lands of origin to their newly adopted homelands, today's immigrant communities deserve similar opportunities.

Today's Immigration System
Despite a sweeping overhaul of the United States' immigration policy a decade ago, it is clear that our immigration system is still inequitable. There are currently nearly 12 million individuals living in the U.S. without legal status. [1] Chronic backlogs in visa distribution result in families being separated for years. While "immediate relatives" face the shortest wait for visas, those in lower preference categories are plagued by delays as long as 11 years. [2] Employment-based visas are available in numbers too small to meet either employer demands or accommodate the laborers available for work. [3] Unauthorized crossings at the U.S.-Mexico border-aggravated by Border Patrol strategies-have led to a record number of deaths in the past year alone. [4]

The failure to address these problems within our current immigration system has created an enforcement vacuum, too often leading non-federal authorities to attempt to enforce federal immigration law. [5] In addition to the humanitarian issues these problems create, domestic security can be undermined when so many people live in the shadows of society and are unable or unwilling to work cooperatively with law enforcement agencies. We cannot ignore the economic, social, and human reality of these "strangers" who are, in fact, our neighbors.

The Current Immigration Debate
Recent discussion in Congress has reflected the historic tensions in our immigration policy. Debate in both the House and Senate has primarily focused on two approaches: 1) legislation that promotes enforcement or border security measures exclusively (the "enforcement-only" approach) and 2) legislation that promotes security measures but also includes a path to earned citizenship for undocumented immigrants, along with measures to ensure that those who came here illegally make appropriate restitution (the "comprehensive immigration reform" approach). In October 2006, President Bush signed into law the Secure Fence Act embodying the enforcement-only approach. The law authorizes the construction of 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Measures designed solely to keep immigrants out of the U.S. ignore the domestic and global forces that lead to rising levels of immigration. A truly comprehensive immigration policy must address these circumstances. In the U.S., undocumented immigrants are concentrated primarily in low-skilled, low-paying jobs in the service sector. [6] Contrary to arguments of those who claim that there are fewer job opportunities available for American workers because of the high rate of illegal immigration, undocumented immigrants often fill positions others are unwilling to take. By doing so, they play a vital role in the American economy. In addition, immigrants, including many undocumented workers, pay federal income taxes and contribute to Social Security. In fact, the Social Security Administration estimates that three-quarters of undocumented immigrants pay Social Security taxes, even though they are ineligible for benefits. [7]

Advocates of a comprehensive approach to immigration reform believe that an earned legalization program would 1) be more humane than the alternatives, 2) grant new immigrants the opportunities that generations of immigrants to the United States have enjoyed, 3) acknowledge that undocumented

workers meet our demand for essential workers, and 4) broaden the tax base by integrating millions of new workers into the above-ground economy. They also stress that a program of earned legalization for undocumented residents would enhance cooperation with law enforcement officials by members of the immigrant community who would no longer fear deportation, likely resulting in reduced crime and improved national security. [8]

Even some provisions in Comprehensive Immigration Reform proposals would create unreasonable family and economic hardships for those seeking to legalize their status. For example, proposals that would provide visas to those who are currently undocumented by requiring immigrants to first leave the U.S. and return to their country of origin, known as "touchback," are unreasonable. Recent ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids raise

due process concerns and have led to families being separated and deportation of parents of U.S. citizens.

A comprehensive approach to reforming our nation's immigration system is the most realistic and humane solution to this escalating crisis. Such an approach takes into account not only the importance of securing our nation's borders and upholding the law, but also the fact that millions of undocumented immigrants currently live in the shadows of society where they are potential targets for unscrupulous employers. They live in fear of law enforcement and thus are afraid to report crimes, including domestic violence, or threats to our nation's security. And they face obstacles to obtaining needed health care, posing a threat to public health. [9] When local law enforcement agents or health care professionals are required to enforce federal immigration law, it undermines their ability to work cooperatively with the immigrant community on such issues. Providing opportunities for the undocumented to eventually become legal citizens after meeting specific requirements is a necessary component of comprehensive immigration reform.

THEREFORE , the Union for Reform Judaism resolves to:

  1. Call for a comprehensive and generous United States immigration policy that treats all immigrants justly and reflects the basic principles of human dignity and human rights;

  2. Oppose enforcement-only legislation while maintaining support for effective and humane border security to curb illegal immigration as part of a comprehensive immigration policy;

  3. Support legislation providing for pathways to earned citizenship for undocumented immigrants that reflect fair and compassionate eligibility standards;

  4. Call on the Department of Homeland Security to ensure that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement units act within the framework of U.S. law, which requires court-ordered search warrants, due process, and humane treatment of detainees and their families.

  5. Call for Congress and the Administration to adopt:
    1. Fair and expeditious processes to deal with the problems of family separation and backlogs in resolving applications for citizenship, asylum, and visas,
    2. Provisions that would allow undocumented immigrants in the process of applying for legal status to remain in the U.S.;

  6. Support measures to clarify that enforcement of federal immigration law is the exclusive province of the appropriate federal legal authorities by:
    1. Opposing efforts by non-federal entities and local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration law;
    2. Opposing efforts by non-federal entities to establish punitive regulations or legislation targeting undocumented immigrants;

  7. Support legislation that recognizes the contribution of immigrants to the U.S. economy and labor force by providing increased opportunities for immigrants to work legally in the United States through temporary worker visas;

  8. Support legislation and policies that address the causes of illegal immigration including legislation that:
    1. Increases the number of visas allowing unskilled laborers to work in the U.S. legally;
    2. Increases guest worker programs and temporary worker visas; and
    3. Addresses the U.S. policies that contribute to the flow of immigrants;

  9. Oppose the exploitation of immigrants in the workplace and encourage employers to maintain the highest safety standards and provide fair and just compensation for all workers;

  10. Encourage congregations and other arms of the Reform Movement to:
    1. Educate their own members and the broader community on the important and beneficial role that immigrants play in our nation's economic, social and cultural life and the need for a fair, compassionate and comprehensive immigration policy;
    2. Participate in coalitions that advocate comprehensive immigration reform consistent with these principles; and
    3. Assist immigrants to integrate into local communities, while recognizing and respecting the importance of preserving immigrant culture and heritage.

[1] Pew Hispanic Center. Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S .

[2] Family Backlog Backgrounder .

[3] Paral, Rob. American Immigration Law Foundation. "No Way In: U.S. Immigration Policy Leaves few Legal Options for Mexican Workers" July 2005 (Not available)
Original :
Updated : June 2008

[4] Pan, Esther. Council on Foreign Relations. " Q&A: Homeland Security: U.S.-Mexico Border Woes ." February 22, 2006.

[5] Turque, Bill. Washington Post. " Officials Face Constitutional Complexities ." September 7, 2007.

[6] Pew Hispanic Center. Size and Characteristics of the Unauthorized Migrant Population in the U.S .

[7] Porter, Eduardo. New York Times. " Illegal Immigrants Are Bolstering Social Security With Billions ." April 5, 2005.

[8] National Council of LaRaza. Waskin, Michele. " Immigration Enforcement by Local Police: The Impact on the Civil Rights of Latinos ." February 2003.

[9] Center for American Progress. King, Meredith, L. " Immigrants in the U.S. Health Care System: 5 Myths That Misinform the American Public ." June 7, 2007.