Immigration Plan Poses Challenges

President Bush’s Jan. 7 proposal to dramatically expand immigration to the United States ignited a national debate about this highly emotional issue. While this is a critical policy that will profoundly affect all Americans, it is a policy that must be of particular concern to American Jews.

Arguably, no group has benefited more from immigration to America than the Jews, and, arguably, no group has more to lose as a result of continued mass immigration to the United States.

The surge of violent anti-Semitism that has been spreading across Europe and the effort of European governments to sweep it under the rug are directly tied to the phenomenon of immigration (as The Jewish Journal reported in the Dec. 5 issue). Much of the current violence and venom directed against European Jewry has its roots in the large Arab and Islamic immigrant community and their European-born children.

The United States is not Europe, and it would be wrong to assert that this country will follow exactly the same path. But it would be wrong and reckless of American Jewry not to contemplate the potential challenges that will face American Jews and their interests 10 or 15 years from now, when the Islamic population of this country will likely outnumber the Jewish population.

It is an uncomfortable matter to deal with, and we must never fall into the trap of automatically assuming that every Arab or Muslim immigrant is a potential enemy, but neither can we ignore the real dangers that this sort of demographic transformation poses.

Unlike Europe, the United States has a long history of assimilating people from disparate cultures. However, there are many important differences between the circumstances of today’s immigration and that of previous generations.

Revolutionary advances in transportation and communication make it much easier for people to cling to their ancestral ties. Moreover, never in our history have we received large numbers of immigrants from societies that harbor strong anti-American attitudes.

The overt anti-Semitism we are witnessing on college campuses across the United States, promoted by increasingly assertive Islamic groups, may well spread into other areas of American life, as the population of Islamic immigrants and their U.S.-born children increases. Things may not deteriorate to the level that they have in France and elsewhere in Europe, where wearing a kippah or a Star of David in public is an invitation to be attacked, but life could become a whole lot less comfortable for Jews in America.

The rapidly growing Islamic population of the United States will likely have a profound effect on this country’s foreign policy, as well. Domestic political considerations could lead to a shift in U.S. Middle East policy, as a growing, vocal and well-organized Muslim voting bloc emerges.

American Jews and American supporters of Israel are not as smart as we like to give ourselves credit for. There is no doubt that groups like the American Israel Public Affairs Committee are among the most effective lobbying organizations in Washington. But it is also true that for a long time, they have been playing the political game without an opposing team on the field. There has not been a substantial group of voters and political contributors who were as passionately anti-Israel as American Jews (and many Christians) have felt in support of Israel.

Until now, congressional support for Israel has been a political no-brainer. Supporting Israel meant Jewish votes if there were any in a member’s district and Jewish campaign dollars, even in states and districts without substantial Jewish populations.

Those built-in advantages are about to change. The Arab and Islamic leadership in the United States is actively planning and organizing to translate growing numbers into increased political clout.

Because of the way U.S. immigration policy is structured, we are likely to see a surge in immigration from the Islamic world in the coming years. Once an immigrant establishes a foothold in the United States, the law guarantees eventual admission for a wide range of extended family members. Given the political and economic conditions that exist in their countries of origin, it is certain that many will take advantage of the opportunity to settle in the United States.

The United States must never return to the pre-1965 policies that favored or disadvantaged potential immigrants based solely on where they came from. However, a policy that places all would-be immigrants on an equal footing and requires them to compete for admission on their own merits would be completely consistent with American values.

Unless provisions of the law that guarantee eventual admission for not only an immigrant’s spouse and minor children, but also parents, adult children and siblings (including their spouses and children) are changed, the Muslim population will grow exponentially. Without a braking mechanism on the engine of chain migration, the Muslim population of the United States, now estimated between 3 million and 4 million, will very quickly overtake a stagnant Jewish population of about 5.5 million.

American Jews can neither ignore our own history nor today’s realities. More than any other group of Americans, our lives and interests — and Israel’s — are likely to be affected by current U.S. immigration policies. American Jews and our leaders must balance nostalgia and our sense of fairness with rational assessments of what these policies will mean for future generations of American Jews.

We need only look across the Atlantic to realize what may await us if we don’t.

Ira Mehlman is co-founder of the American Jewish Immigration Policy Institute.