Sermon on Immigration Reform

Most scholars agree that the first Jewish settlement of any significant size in the new world occurred when a small band of refugees, 23 Sephardic Jews (or Jews of Spanish heritage) from Brazil, came to New Amsterdam (New York) in 1654. They came seeking the rights of free men and women in a place where they could worship without restraint and avail themselves of both the opportunities and obligations of a liberal society.

Once in America, they found that New Amsterdam in many ways was no different from where they came. They were treated as separate citizens. They could not engage in retail trade, practice handicrafts, hold public position, serve in the militia or practice their religion in a synagogue or in gatherings.

By the time of the American Revolution over 100 years later, the size of the Jewish population in the new world had grown by only small measures, and at a fairly slow pace. In 1789, Jewish immigrants in America had established only five major communities. All of them were in the large cities at the time such as New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Charleston, and Newport.

German immigrants dominated the following period in American Jewish history, which occurred during the first half of the 19th Century. The initial group came because of the scarcity of land, rural poverty and government restrictions in Germany on marriage, domicile and employment. America, in the early part of that century was experiencing a period of rapid geographic expansion, and the German Jews became an integral part of the developing Midwest.

The second wave of Jews came after the failed German revolution in 1848. They were older and more educated than those who characterized the first wave. There were significant German Jewish communities in Michigan, Ohio and Illinois.  (Taken from American Immigration Law Foundation,

All of us were immigrants to this country, either during these waves, or the later, and more well-known waves of immigrants that fled the pogroms of Russia.  And yet, sadly, we also know of the horror stories of America, and most other countries of world, denying immigration visas to our relatives fleeing Nazi Germany, with restrictive immigration policies contributing to the death of 6 million Jews, including the almost 1000 aboard the St. Louis, which sailed along the coast of Florida, the lights of Miami in their sights, only to be sent back to the gas chambers.  As a country founded on immigrants, coming to a land inhabited by natives who bore the brunt of our ancestors anger and desire for a new life, we have had a very checkered and disturbing record on immigration policy, which has mostly remained nonexistent at the highest levels of government until this very day.  And this failure to adequately deal with this pressing issue of human rights is what has led us to what happened in Arizona.  We will come back to that in a moment.

We all should be paying attention to what is happening in our country right now, for it is not just Arizona.  There is a swelling of anger and fear which is boiling over, as we continue to suffer from a serious recession, loss of jobs, loss of homes, loss of control that thought we had over our lives.  The past history, of which we Jews know all too well, teaches us that when things start to falter in society, people look for others to blame.  And while it has been the Jews in the past, and we should be careful today too for I never totally think we are out of the woods in this regard, and while it was Muslims after 9/11, who suffered horrible discrimination, mostly out of the public sight, today it is illegal immigrants, people who are marginal in our country, hiding in the shadows, unable to live full lives because of their status.  And while the scope of this sermon cannot fully address all the necessary components of this status, how it came to be, why folks come to America illegally and what should be done about it, this much I can say: our system is broken, comprehensive immigration reform is absolutely necessary and needed now, and laws like the one just passed in Arizona, SB 1070, are only coming to put an ugly, torn-up, shredded band-aid on a massive domestic policy issue. 

Our Torah teaches us that when we set up a community, residents and strangers are to be treated fairly and equally.  In fact, this week’s portion, Emor, says, in the section reiterating some aspects of criminal law, “You shall have one standard for stranger and citizen alike: for I am the Lord your God.” (Lev. 24:22)  We know what it is like as Jews to be the stranger, the outsider, even here in America, as my short historical opening reminded us.  Yet, the verse ends, “for I am the Lord your God,” calling us to remember that human beings, all people, citizen and strangers, are children of God, and deserve to be treated as such.  I understand that we have borders, we have sovereign nations and rights as citizens, and while we can argue about whether those are healthy or not, I am concerned about the overt racism and ugliness that a law like Arizona just passed is fomenting.  Law enforcement will now become border patrol officers; police have the right to pull over anyone who “looks” illegal, which will lead to serious racial profiling; people will be asked to produce their papers, their documents, reminding us Jews what that was like in Germany, and we were citizens of the country.  If a mother goes out to get an ice cream for her child, she risks being arrested, deported and separated from her family forever.  This is already happening with the current system, as unless you are involved in this issue, you wouldn’t know how many people’s lives have been torn apart and destroyed because of our lack of healthy, respectful and meaningful immigration policy.

Clearly we have a problem here.  Clearly we have an issue that we have not adequately dealt with as a nation.  And yet, this is an issue that affects millions of human beings, souls seeking to live a better life, provide a better future for their children, souls who risk life and death to make it happen.  America continues to represent a land of opportunity and hope for people around the globe.  The law in Arizona represents a side of our country that we must not allow to gain a footing.  Out of fear and using misinformation about people, the law gives Arizona the right to arrest people who look different, even if they actually might be legal citizens.  How will an officer make that decision?  Nobody in America deserves to be harassed for how they look; that is racism and too many of our American-born, fully legal, citizens experience that pain each and every day.  We should not be subjecting more folks to this humiliation.  I have been talking with many of my colleagues and friends, civil rights lawyers, justice advocates and human rights workers, and I am asking hard questions about how we should go forward, what is the best route and how we can adequately deal with the millions of undocumented people in our country.  I know that there are no easy answers and there is no blanket solution.  However, one thing I do know is that four years ago we came very close to bringing comprehensive immigration reform to the floors of our Congress and it was blocked due to political wrangling and fear, so today, because of that inaction, we are faced with Arizona taking federal matters into their own hands.  I do know that while some of the illegal immigrants in our countries are criminals and drug dealers, the vast majority, the overwhelming majority, are hardworking, dedicated members of our society, contributing long hours of work to jobs that many legal citizens are not interested in doing.  Our gardeners, maintenance workers, busboys, farm workers and many other low wage workers are toiling in the shadows and we as a country are tacitly accepting that.  In many ways, this is a new form of modern slavery that we shouldn’t tolerate, as more Torah laws that we value, such as not denying a worker their wage, paying people far below minimum wage knowing that they can’t do anything about it, are common practice.  New laws should be going after the major employers who hire undocumented workers and turn a blind eye so that they can get cheap labor, only to abandon them if raided.  This is unacceptable.  Before we start arresting all of the “strangers in our midst,” lets get at the citizens in our midst who are profiting greatly first.  That might just start to slow the problem.  People come here to work and as long as we allow that, this issue can’t be solved in a real way.  Again, comprehensive reform is needed urgently before more states adopt these kind of draconian and bigoted laws like we see in Arizona.

Deuteronomy 16:18 teaches us that we need to create societies based on the rule of law, enforced by judges and magistrates.  I am not arguing that we should not be concerned with those coming to country illegally, indeed we should.  However, the end of that verse reminds us of our holy challenge in creating those societies based on the rule of law: “they shall govern the people with righteous justice.”  The Hebrew for “righteous justice” is “mishpat tzedek,” a clarion call that our laws must be infused with divine holiness, not just legal retribution.  Our laws must represent the ideals of our nation and right now on immigration we couldn’t be further from those ideals.  Despite the flawed and damaging way our country was founded, which is for another time, I believe that we must never forget that immigrants and immigration are at the heart of who we are as Americans.  And as Jews, the Torah teaches us that we “know the heart of the stranger, for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  I stand with those who are outraged at the passing of this law and I stand with those who are working to pass sensible, meaningful, humane and morally just immigration reform.  Arizona can’t be a model for America.  Fixing a broken system with broken parts leaves everything broken.  And remembering our past experiences as immigrants, may all of us in the Jewish community be a part of fixing this problem.  Shabbat shalom!