Immigrant Past

Jewish Americans, Get On Board the Immigration Reform Train

10.25.13 6:30 PM ET

With the lifting of the U.S. government shutdown, social activists are back to pressing for legislative change. This week, the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable released a document called “A Congress of Immigrants” in which a handful of Jewish members of Congress share details about their ancestors’ immigration journey. On the heels of the Roundtable’s Hineni video—where Americans were asked to pressure their leaders to push for immigration reform, this new initiative brings legislators directly into the conversation.

If we were to word cloud the document, the resulting image would include terms and phrases like “dreams and opportunities,” “safe haven from persecution,” “empathy” and “freedom.” Little of this is surprising when we consider the central Jewish immigrant narrative to North America, a narrative largely shared by millions of other individuals and families who arrived on America’s shores from nearly all corners of the globe in search of a better life.

Three or four generations since arriving, the American Jewish community has, by all measures, achieved extraordinary material and social success. So successful has the American Jewish experiment been, that today the Jewish community fears for its survival due not to anti-Semitism, but to the assimilating arms of American society. Against this backdrop, it is tempting to let the door drift closed. Yet the immigrant parents and grandparents of natural-born U.S. citizens, you will hear from activist after activist, likely would not have been admitted if today’s U.S. immigration policies had been in place when they arrived. (See if you would qualify, here.) As Abby Levine, director of the Roundtable, put it, “The wait can be decades for people to come to this country, and that certainly wasn’t the case for most Jews coming to America.”

It is all too easy for Jews to look upon their community’s success and not realize the existing barriers to others’ advancement. These barriers are not only legislative—for which immigration reform is obviously the solution—but also include murky issues surrounding class, ethnicity and even the silent specter of race. Whether Jews possess the sort of inherent privilege accorded to whites—or whether they remain a racialized minority—is a larger question deserving of more discussion. It may also be the case that, when it comes to race and ethnicity, many Jews don’t see themselves the way others see them.

In the meantime, the legislative level is as good a place as any to begin. Groups like the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, a consortium of 26 American Jewish organizations dedicated to domestic social justice issues, understand the moral imperative of taking action to shape policy. “We are—and always have been—a nation of immigrants, and this has always been a phenomenal asset, not a burden,” as Jerry Nadler (D-NY 10th District) declared in the document.

One final note. By its mandate, the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable is focused on American political issues. But anyone in the Jewish community who is troubled by the state of American immigration policy, and its effects on the many undocumented immigrants whose opportunities are curtailed by living in the shadows, might also wish to reflect on the dire situation of asylum seekers in Israel. The two political landscapes are very different, and working for the amelioration of one group in one country certainly does not imply callousness towards any other. But one can hope that a politics of compassion extended toward the challenges facing undocumented migrants will be able to transcend borders.