Of Note -- Hearts, Minds & HIAS

Posted by Gideon Aronoff on Sun, Dec 10, 2006 at 16:36 pm

You may have recently seen an ad in the Forward, NY Jewish Week and probably other Jewish papers from Stephen Steinlight asking if immigration is good for America and good for the Jews. Steinlight, a fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies, is a leading “light” in the immigration restrictionist movement. His primary goal is to convince grassroots American Jews that elite Jewish leaders – that is to say HIAS and our colleagues in the Jewish immigrant rights movement (AJCommittee, ADL, JCPA, etc.) – are out of touch with our community’s “real” values and interests. Steinlight currently has no role in a Jewish organization, but constantly highlights his status as a former American Jewish Committee staffer. His ad offers to provide a talk with “no fee” at synagogues, churches, and other non-profits.

For those of you who haven’t seen Steinlight in action, or read his alarmist writings such as High Noon to Midnight: Why Current Immigration Policy Dooms American Jewry, he joins highly inflammatory arguments about immigrants from Arab and Muslim countries with broad-brush attacks on the impact of immigration from Latin America. These arguments, often filled with gross inaccuracies, aim to take advantage of legitimate Jewish concerns about terrorism to win Jewish support for immigration policies that would return the United States to the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the nationality-based immigration quotas of the 1921 and 1924 immigration laws.

These policy prescriptions have been rejected consistently by our Public Policy Committee and Board, as well as by JCPA, UJC, ADL, AJC and others in the Jewish community. The Jewish consensus remains that we benefit both as Americans and as Jews from carefully crafted enforcement measures targeting individual migrants who may pose particular threats, generous opportunities for refugees and immigrants to be admitted into the country, enhanced programs to encourage citizenship and integration into American society, and realistic and pragmatic comprehensive immigration reform to address the problems of undocumented migration.

At HIAS, we have a positive message – both about immigration and refugee policy and about our 125 years of service to the American and World Jewish communities – that can counteract the propaganda of advocates such as Steinlight while building and enhancing support for our work.

Over the past several years – through the work of the Executive Office, all of the departments in our current Division of Policy and Programs, HIAS’ Young Leaders and History programs, and our Communications Department – we have done increasingly well in addressing Jewish audiences through public speaking and media work. [An example of this can be found in the attached Key Note Address I gave at an event last week in Atlanta sponsored by the Atlanta Chapter of the American Jewish Committee and the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta. Archbishop Wilton Gregory was the other Key Note speaker.] The fact that we have maintained the Jewish consensus in the difficult days since 9/11 is in no small part due to these efforts.

However, since we can’t rest on our past successes, look for a series of initiatives as we begin 2007 to increase HIAS’ profile in taking our story to the public. We definitely need a formal speakers bureau. We must generate greater numbers of news stories, letters to the editor, Op-Eds, editorials and advertisements in the Jewish press and other media outlets. We need to make full use of HIAS’ website and other Internet-based communication tools to reach the broadest possible audience. Finally, since the target of our work is the grassroots Jewish community as well as the Jewish organizational world, there will be a vitally important role for the HIAS Board of Directors in this process.

I look forward to working with all of you in the next year, and into the future, to promote HIAS’ values and strategic objectives as we serve the Jewish community’s interests in the migration field. As always, I welcome your feedback on this Of Note at HIAS, and your ideas on how we can best expand the impact of HIAS’ public affairs work.



Key Note Address by: Gideon Aronoff
December 4, 2006

Immigration: The Facts, The Challenges, The Moral Response
Convened by: American Jewish Committee Atlanta Chapter, Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, and Leadership Atlanta

I would like to thank the American Jewish Committee Atlanta Chapter, the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, and Leadership Atlanta for inviting me to speak today at this very important gathering.

Today’s topic – Immigration: The Facts, The Challenges, The Moral Response – is one of the most pressing facing our communities and our nation. How we address the issue will have profound effects on our economy, security, and even our essential identity as Americans. To find solutions that serve all of these interests, we will need to work diligently to tone down the heated rhetoric that has characterized the immigration debate in recent years and to look for answers to complex questions. We must remember that this is not a case of us vs. them, or one where we need to shy away from acknowledging the legitimate fears of some of our opponents in the debate. However, with stakes as high as they are, we also cannot hide behind the self-satisfaction of clever sound bites or unworkable policies that may look good on paper but are impossible to implement in real life.

To begin with I would like to share several key statistics that should shock us, and argue strongly for our continued engagement in the struggle to repair our immigration system:

  • First, approximately 12 Million undocumented immigrants currently reside in the United States having either crossed the border illegally or overstayed their legally authorized visa, all subject to exploitation because of their lack of legal status;
  • Second, estimates indicate that the undocumented population grows by approximately 500,000 immigrants each year despite billions in increased spending on border enforcement;
  • Third, waits of up to 20 years exist in certain family reunification categories -- separating loved ones for unconscionably long periods of time; and
  • Finally, 460 people died trying to cross the border in 2005 -- thus continuing a tragic trend in recent years as safer border crossing areas have been closed forcing migrants out into the harsh desert conditions.

In the face of these facts, nearly all agree that border security and undocumented migration are tremendous problems for our country. The debate is not that we should do something to get control of the borders and the immigration system, but whether it is advisable, or even possible, to succeed if focused solely on enforcement.

Ultimately, there are three principal options we can choose from:

We can do nothing while the problem grows worse year after year – often while spending a great deal of energy on extremely dramatic press releases and talk radio appearances.

We can try to expel the 12 million at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars, and with the associated family, employment and social disruption.


We can accept that the broken immigration system can only be fixed by coming together as a country, engaging in a measured debate on immigration policy and ultimately passing legislation that will do the following:

  • Provide a path to citizenship for the current undocumented population;
  • Create new legal avenues for immigrant workers to replace our current illegal immigration system;
  • Address the backlogs in family-based immigration categories;
  • Develop fair and effective border and interior enforcement mechanisms that will stop those migrants and employers who seek to circumvent the new system; and
  • Encourage citizenship and greater integration of newcomers into American society.

Before coming back to a brief discussion of the current political climate for Comprehensive Immigration Reform, I would like to step back and examine several key areas of American life where immigration intersects with a broad cross-section of American interests and values.

Economic Vitality, Workforce Development, the Future of Labor, and Economic Justice
To begin with, we should look at the ways immigration relates to the issues of Economic Vitality, Workforce Development, the Future of Organized Labor, and Economic Justice. From the perspective of migrants – both legal and undocumented – immigration is about seeking access to the opportunity provided by the United States – frequently a chance to provide economic sustenance for one’s family. If one has no work at home, the lure of the U.S. job market can be irresistible. Under our current system where fake documents are readily available and an unworkable employer sanctions program is in effect, migrants are confident that if they are ready to work hard, face the dangers of illegal border crossings and accept life in a legal limbo, they can find work and a chance to help their families survive.

But, what about from the perspective of the U.S. economy more broadly? One comment from Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke underscores the idea that the United States is engaged in a global competition with other western economies for labor to replace an aging workforce. In a recent interview Chairman Bernanke argued that the problem of an aging workforce is so severe that it would take an annual immigration rate of 3.5 million people to address it. With fewer than 1 million legal immigrants currently being admitted annually, there is a great deal of leeway in the economy to accept higher legal immigration as part of a new immigration plan. This reality explains the deep involvement in the immigration debate of business coalitions who see access to immigrant workers as the only way to guarantee that fruit will be picked, dishes washed, buildings constructed, etc.

Joining the Fed Chairman and the Chamber of Commerce in a “strange bedfellows” coalition, much of Organized Labor has moved away from its traditionally hostile approach to immigration. Unions like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and UNITE/HERE have been leaders in this coalition. SEIU President Andy Stern’s analysis explains much of this policy change. Stern recently said, “An underground economy – where workers have little protection and work for substandard pay in hazardous conditions – undermines the standards for all workers in this country and breeds divisions in workplaces and our communities.” These Unions also have concluded that with the general decline in Union membership, much of their future influence will be derived from unionizing new immigrant labor. While business and labor may well fight it out on this point, they have found agreement that increased numbers of immigrant workers are essential for their future success, as well as for and American prosperity.

While much of business and labor are in agreement, it is still a valid question whether there are winners and losers in the economics of immigration. The bipartisan Independent Taskforce on Immigration and America’s Future concluded that immigration augments and complements the workforce exceptionally well, helps the U.S. maintain a competitive edge and adapt to global market conditions, and gives the U.S. economy a particular dynamism. However, they also concluded that despite the positive net economic benefits of immigration, illegal immigration can have a negative impact on wages at the bottom of the pay scale.

To address these concerns, immigration advocates argue that the best way to reduce the negative consequences of illegal immigration is to change the system into a legal system where low skilled workers can protect their rights. This change would both improve their standing and prevent their employment from undermining the standing of native born workers. While competition from new workers can legitimately be seen as a threat to these workers, a comprehensive approach to immigration – coupled with a renewed emphasis on education and training – can address these concerns while still serving to grow the economy and the workforce in ways that are important for the long-term health of the economy.

Security and the Rule of Law
Now I’d like to discuss the role that immigration plays in the top national priority of improving security in post 9/11 America. While there have been very ugly and inaccurate attempts made to create a false impression that our immigration problems and our terrorism problems are one and the same, there are legitimate concerns that a border that is porous and a shadow society of undocumented immigrants and false documents can provide access to the United States and places to hide for terrorists and criminals.

This should be acknowledged because smart immigration policy can play a positive role in improving security on the borders and in the interior of our country. Advocates of Comprehensive Immigration Reform should not shy away from recognizing this as a significant benefit of reform. Efforts that attempt to tighten enforcement while providing legal opportunities for the current undocumented immigrant population and future flows of immigrant workers will allow the best targeting of enforcement resources on those migrants who pose the greatest danger of terrorist or criminal connections rather than maintaining the current situation where immigration agents are forced to waste resources chasing busboys and nannies.

While being sensitive to the positive impact immigration reform can have on security, as well as the general level of fear in American society post 9/11, we need to be extremely cautious so that we don’t overstep and harm other core values and interests by labeling everything as a threat to national security. For example, today refugees from regions across the world are being denied protection and resettlement in the United States because of the overly broad definition of Material Support for Terrorist Activity put into U.S. law after 9/11. These victims of persecution are being barred from admission despite the fact that the support they provided to an organization deemed a terrorist group may have been provided under duress (most often the case for Colombian refugees) or may have been given to a group fighting an enemy state such as Burma. By analogy, this provision would have barred Jews during the Holocaust who had provided assistance to the resistance to Nazi genocide. After years of work to correct this injustice, Congress and the Administration have not been able to solve the problem, in significant part because of fears of looking soft on security.

In addition to the core security concerns, many argue that anything short of deportation for immigration law violators undermines our traditional value of “Rule of Law.” As with the security issue, there are many very legitimate concerns raised in this area. The more important question, however, is to see which policy alternatives best serve this value in the long term. We can accept the idea – raised by immigration restrictionists but also by many other Americans – that violations of immigration law are wrong and are offensive to the United States’ notion of being a “Nation of Laws.”

That being said, it is crucial to appreciate that technical immigration violations are not the same as murder or other serious crimes, and are an outgrowth of a system where available jobs and willing workers are out of sync. The current illegal immigration system also has lead to growing violence, vigilantism, and property damage on the borders, as well as heated rhetoric that has expanded anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic hate crimes, all of which undermine the core value of Rule of Law.

A Comprehensive Plan that provides penalties for immigration law violators, but permits them to ultimately become citizens, will reduce these additional negatives while remaining consistent with the notion that even those who break a law can pay a price and be redeemed.

National Identity and Moral Values
I would like to turn now to the issue of national identity and moral values. Since this will be addressed later in detail I will only make a few observations here.

As Americans we see immigration as inherent to our core national identity. It is axiomatic that we are “A Nation of Immigrants” – our national motto is “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of Many, One).” What have been the practical effects of these ideas?

At its base, I would argue that these ideas have shaped our country as a pluralistic nation where each wave of immigrants brings its own contributions to our shores, and then struggles through the dynamic process of American culture to become One. Whether it is through the melting pot, the salad bowl or other metaphors, this process essentially represents the ever-changing face of America.

As such, this pluralistic process also has allowed newcomers to find their place as full-fledged members of this community without necessarily giving up all of the cultural characteristics they brought with them from their original homelands. While newcomers may well be feared, and be the victims of serious prejudice, the fundamental “American-ness” of the United States is not the property of a single racial, ethnic or religious group. Those who seek to define America by the norms of a single group are highly unlikely to succeed because of the traditions of our Constitutional Political Culture. While this analysis is much more difficult in the context of Native American and African American history, the promise of equality that Dr. King embodied fits well in the pluralistic American identity created in significant part by immigration.

From a moral perspective we can look at how the immigration policy debate reflects core American values, and how we can best make one out of the many. But, we can also examine our own individual religious and ethical traditions – ones that we have brought with us and now share with the broader American society – to see how they relate to questions of immigration.

It is crucial to remember that faith traditions tend to speak in broad principles rather than legislative language. It is therefore fair to note that people of the same faith who look at public policy questions, can come to different conclusions. This is certainly true regarding immigration.

However, it is remarkable to see the consistency in the way different religions instruct their adherents to treat immigrants, and how a broad coalition of faith-based groups have joined in the cause of keeping an open door for newcomers.

For Example:

The Hebrew Bible tells us: "The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt (Leviticus 19:33-34)."

In the New Testament, Jesus tells us to welcome the stranger (cf. Matthew 25:35), for "what you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me (Matthew 25:40)."

The Qur'an tells us that we should “serve God…and do good to…orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer that you meet, [and those who have nothing] (4:36).”

The Hindu scripture Taitiriya Upanishad tells us: “The guest is a representative of God (1.11.2)”

So, for each of us – in our own tradition and strengthened by the American value of freedom of religion – we can look to faith for guidance on how we ought to view our responsibilities towards immigrants, refugees and other newcomers. And, as we seek to fulfill our economic and security interests, we can be influenced by these spiritual and humanitarian values and be inspired to seek solutions that serve our finest natures as Americans and as individuals.

2007 Political Opportunity
Now I would like to turn briefly to the outlook for Comprehensive Immigration Reform in light of the 2006 Midterm Elections. After several years of primarily defensive action on immigration, 2007 could be a time when real progress could be made in this area.

By and large, in the 2006 elections, Republican hard liners on immigration lost, while Democratic supporters of comprehensive immigration reform won. Latino voters turned out in record numbers and turned decisively in favor of the democrats. Election eve and exit polling indicated that voters support a comprehensive plan that includes both better enforcement and opportunities for citizenship and new legal access for immigrants – when given that choice.

While the public remains very upset about illegal immigration, the House Republicans misread public frustration as anti-immigrant sentiment. Voters want their leaders to pull together and work out a tough, fair, and practical solution to the problem.

With Democrats now in control of both the House and the Senate, and President Bush supporting a comprehensive approach to immigration reform, there is a real chance if Congress enacts centrist legislation on a bipartisan basis that solves the problem. This will marginalize the loud voices, but not large numbers, of hard liners and please most voters. It won’t be easy, and it will require compromise, but it appears possible to find a solution that is in the national interest and, for a change, moves our immigration policy forward.

Conclusion: Stuyvesant’s America or Washington’s America
I want to close with two quotations from early American Jewish immigration history that provide contrasting approaches to newcomers that have characterized American immigration history. These views can be heard today about new groups of immigrants, and provide food for thought on how we should deal with today’s immigration debate in Congress, local communities like Atlanta and throughout the United States.

In 1654 when the first 23 Jewish immigrants arrived in New Amsterdam, Governor Peter Stuyvesant wrote to the directors of the Dutch West India Company seeking to exclude and expel the new arrivals. Stuyvesant wrote:
“The Jews who have arrived would nearly all like to remain here, but learning that they (with their customary usury and deceitful trading with the Christians) were very repugnant to the inferior magistrates, as also the people….The Deaconry also fearing that owing to their present indigence they might become a public charge in the coming winter…we have to require them in a friendly way to depart…that this deceitful race – such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ – be not allowed to further infect and trouble this new colony…”

In contrast, President George Washington in a 1790 letter to the leaders of the Turo Synagogue in Newport RI wrote:
“It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent rights. For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

Stuyvesant’s fear of new religions and new peoples, and worries about poor immigrants, can be seen reflected in today’s debate – and will most likely continue to be heard throughout our history. However, Washington’s promise of an America ruled by the principles of citizenship – not race, religion, or ethnicity – also can be heard.

During what I strongly hope will be a principled debate on the details of immigration policy in 2007, I believe that ultimately the Washingtonian view will continue to be victorious – and that the latter-day Stuyvesants will be overruled as he was by the Dutch West India Company which allowed the 23 Jews to stay -- because this position is more fully consistent with the dynamic pluralism that is America’s greatest strength.

Thank you again for inviting me to participate in tonight’s meeting.

Comments (4)

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Posted by gideon on May 16, 2010 at 12:50 pm

this is funny
i thought you only censure your newspapers and articles but apparently you censure everything because i just wrote a comment which you didn't like and didn't post! let's see if this one gets on...


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Posted by PERRY HOOKMAN on December 04, 2012 at 11:33 am

we need a speaker for our club here in BOCA RATON.
PLEASE CALL 561-445-0486


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Posted by Bob Quasius on February 13, 2013 at 2:11 pm

More on Stephen Steinlight, and the truth about the "think tank" he works for, and those behind it.


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Posted by Yehuda on May 09, 2013 at 4:59 am

7 years later and now we face 20 million new illegal DEMmigrants who will get amnesty even if felons.

THANKS HIAS, ADL etc for helping to RUIN AMERICA.