2010-10-06 / Religion Column

God commands us to treat immigrants fairly

Lech Lecha Gen. 12:1-17:27

Abraham and Sarah were the first immigrants in Jewish history. In Genesis 12:1, God says, “Go forth from your land, the place of your birth, your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” Abraham and Sarah went to Canaan, then to Egypt, and back to the Promised Land. In Genesis 15, God tells Abraham that his descendents will be, “Strangers in a land not theirs.”

Care for the stranger is a core value in Judaism. Based on our ancestors’ slavery in Egypt and God’s redemption, in the Torah there are 36 instances when the people are enjoined to be kind to strangers; this includes providing food and honest business dealings.

The experience of the Jewish people throughout history, migration, expulsion, community support, and creating new homes has made us especially conscious of the needs of others. This was expressed by Emma Lazarus in the poem “The New Colossus,” written in 1883, which is inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty. She reflected on the experience of Jews from Eastern Europe and the immigrants of that generation when she wrote, “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Today, immigration reform is one of the most controversial issues in the United States. Last March, over 200,000 people gathered on the National Mall in Washington, DC. The event was called, “March for America: Change Takes Courage and Faith,” and brought together people of many different faiths and ethnic backgrounds to call on Congress to create paths to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

The other side of the debate has also been expressed—opposition to people entering the United States illegally was expressed by the passage of the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act in Arizona. This law makes it a misdemeanor crime for immigrants to be in the state without carrying identification.

At the present time, it is estimated that there are 11-12 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. The issues are complex.

• Jobs: On one hand, our country needs to protect the jobs of American workers. At the same time, businesses need for hire people from abroad at every level from farm workers to engineers and doctors.

• The Rule of Law. People should not benefit from illegal actions. Security is needed for the borders.

• Family Needs: There are families whose members are both citizens and undocumented workers. Deporting one person could cause a whole family to lose its income.

• Democracy: Immigration promotes the values of the United States around the world. This is a country where people come for freedom and a new life.

“We Were Strangers, Too: the Jewish Campaign for Immigration Reform” is the response of our community. It is a project sponsored by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, Hadassah, National Council of Jewish Women, Jewish Reconstructionist Federation, Rabbinical Assembly, and Union for Reform Judaism. I have worked with this campaign for the last two years. As part of teams with Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants, I have spent time with immigrant communities, advocated for legislation to help families, and visited undocumented immigrants who are in jail. The stories are heartbreaking and the needs are tremendous. This is one of the great human rights issues of our era.

The “We Were Strangers, Too” campaign seeks immigration legislation that will, “Keep families together, creates a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and creates a plan for future migration flows in order to protect all workers’ rights.” It also “Establishes border protection and enforcement policies that bolster our national security, while balancing enforcement with economic development and human and civil rights.”

The Zohar compares the responses of Abraham and Noah when God was going to punish humanity. It says, “And Noah held his peace and said naught. He did not intercede on behalf of the people of his generation. Whereas Abraham came forward to intercede with God on behalf of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah as soon as the Holy One, praised be He, spoke to him of his plans to destroy those cities.” In our generation, we face similar crises. Do we work for civil rights in the face of fear? Do we confront genocide? Do we hear the voice of the stranger? Immigration reform reminds us of the journey of Abraham and Sarah and calls to answer the call of our people to respond to each stranger with justice and compassion. .

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