Mean-Spirited State and Local Ordinances Not the Solution to Immigration Reform

Posted on Fri, Jul 27, 2007 at 9:57 am

HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, applauds the July 26th ruling by a federal judge in Scranton, Pa. against the City of Hazleton in a landmark challenge (Lozano v. City of Hazleton) to local immigration-related ordinances aimed at punishing landlords, employers and immigrants. This decision represents a victory of common sense over vitriol during a time when states and localities are feeling the pressure to react to congressional inaction on immigration reform.

Facing a vacuum of leadership from Congress on fixing our broken immigration system, many state legislatures and localities have responded by crafting and passing immigration-related measures, many of which are anti-immigrant and which may ultimately be ruled unconstitutional. As of May 2007, nearly 1,200 immigration-related bills and resolutions had been introduced in state legislatures, and dozens of localities have passed anti-immigrant measures. Many of these measures aim to restrict access to rental housing, employment, and government services, and authorize enhanced authority to state and local law enforcement over immigrants in their communities for non-criminal activity. Rather than fixing our broken immigration system, these ordinances only serve to invoke fear, suspicion, and anti-immigrant fervor in our communities, as well as ostracize and mistreat immigrants.

Conjuring fear of the other and sensationalizing an onslaught of immigration does not contribute to sound and humane policy making, whether at the federal, state or local level. Immigrants and their families are good for our economy, good for our communities, and contribute to the overall development of our nation. America would not be the dynamic and prosperous nation that it is today were it not for the immigrants who came and continue to come to our shores seeking opportunity and freedom.

Yet today we see an anti-immigrant backlash in our communities that is reminiscent of the same backlash that Jews have historically faced upon reaching America’s shores. American Jews are especially familiar with the undercurrent of fear and suspicion of newcomers that exists in our country today. Since the first Jewish immigrants arrived in America 350 years ago, Jews have understood well what it means to come to this country in search of opportunity and freedom. Having reached American shores, Jewish immigrants benefited from these freedoms and opportunities and in the process made contributions to American society – economically, politically, culturally, and in many other ways. The wave of Jewish immigrants to America in the early 1880’s who were fleeing poverty and murderous pogroms, anti-Jewish uprisings in Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe, was eventually met with an anti-immigrant backlash that resulted in the National Origins Quota of 1924, which severely restricted immigration from Eastern Europe and Russia after that time. In 1939 a Roper poll found that only thirty-nine percent of Americans felt that Jews should be treated like other people. Fifty-three percent believed that “Jews are different and should be restricted” and ten percent believed that Jews should be deported.

The anti-immigrant sentiment that we see today is not unlike the antisemitic sentiments Jewish immigrants who came to the United States experienced in the past. From this experience and based on Jewish religious and ethical values that provide the firm foundation for Jewish involvement in immigration, the Jewish community recognizes today’s immigrants as a part of our national fabric and as Americans who contribute to our country and make it stronger, and has advocated for fair and human policies, nationally and locally. They fill jobs that would go otherwise unfilled, they support their families, they participate in religious communities, and they contribute to the economy by starting businesses and paying taxes.

These mean-spirited state and local measures aimed at driving immigrants away are not the solution to fixing our broken immigration system – a system based on ignoring illegality rather than creating rational opportunities for new immigrant workers. Anti-immigrant measures at the local and state level, such as those recently passed in Prince William and Loudon Counties in Virginia and those rightfully struck down in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, will not improve our communities but instead tear them apart. What is needed is a careful, considered, and compassionate federal approach to immigration policy that incorporates the pressing security concerns of all Americans, while maintaining America’s historical essence as a welcoming haven. Toward that end, HIAS has consistently urged Congress to adopt comprehensive immigration reform that offers a path to citizenship to the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the shadows; creates wider legal channels for future workers and worker protections; reunites families; and includes enforcement and border security measures that are meaningful, effective, and humane. Only then will we as a nation be able to both welcome newcomers and enhance our security.