Why Immigration Matters

Throughout the long and bitter galus, Jews have been victims of persecution in many of the lands in which we had taken up residence. Whether it was the forced conversions of the Spanish Inquisition, the obliteration of European Jewry in the fires of the Holocaust, or the countless other times Jews were systematically abused and massacred, the Jewish people could never count on being treated well by any of our “hosts” for too long.

As such, Jews were always on the go, emigrating from one country and immigrating to another. At times this was due to expulsion, as was the case in France in 1182, when we were given three months to leave; or in England in 1290, when we were forced out by King Edward I.

There were also times we resettled because it was simply too dangerous to remain a Jew in certain areas. The Crusaders laid waste to many Jewish communities which were in their path, leading many of the survivors to start anew elsewhere. The same is true about the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648–1649, otherwise known as Tach V’Tat. Of course, it goes without saying that the Holocaust, besides the awful toll it took in innocent lives, was, as an event, the single greatest cause of immigration of Jews to the United States.

Sometimes it was a little bit of both. This was the case during the Spanish Inquisition and the subsequent exile of Jews from the haven found in Portugal. Given the choice to convert or leave, the mass migration from these countries was something that, sadly, is less of an abnormality throughout our history than we would wish.

On the other hand, since the end of the Second World War, the general attitude in the United States of America, the consummate medinah shel chessed, has been to welcome us with open arms. But that is more an anomaly than anything else. (Even in America, President Roosevelt’s administration’s restrictions on Jewish immigration during the Holocaust caused many people to be denied visas that could have saved their lives.) As Jews moved from country to country, many refused to let us in, no matter what kind of persecution we were trying to escape.

The words of Emma Lazarus, engraved on a bronze plaque which is displayed inside the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, make this country’s attitude to immigration quite clear. “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-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

These words are supposed to be typical of American policy toward immigrants who are fleeing persecution. But the political posturing over immigration reform has led to a kind of xenophobic attitude that is hurting those who need help the most.

A recent Associated Press-GfK poll about the southern border crisis found that 53 percent of Americans feel that the “United States does not have a moral obligation to offer asylum to those seeking an escape from political persecution or violence in their home countries.” Only 44 percent of the country disagrees with this.

It is easy for those on either side of the political aisle to point fingers at each other over this disturbing development. And while the poll does find this view more prevalent among Republicans than Democrats, it isn’t fair to absolve Democrats from their share of blame for this as well. The fact is, it is the rhetoric in Washington that is driving this debate, and the longer both sides just keep talking about the “crisis” that is our broken immigration system, the more extreme the rhetoric becomes, and the further the more extreme elements of each side are able to drag their parties.

Many experts have warned that due to demographic changes, the Republican Party can end up with permanent minority status if they don’t help work on solving this problem. Democratic politicians wonder aloud why that doesn’t make Republicans more amenable to working with the president on immigration.

Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, to his credit, tried to come up with a workable solution to the immigration crisis when he released the House Principles on Immigration in January. That drew him a primary challenger who ultimately defeated him. It would seem that even Republicans who want to work on this issue can’t, because if they give too much they can end up out of a job.

Democrats also need to recognize that reality and, if this isn’t just a politically advantageous issue they are looking to exploit, but something they want to solve, they need to work together with Republicans on this as well. Both sides have to share in the blame — maybe not equally, but there is enough to go around. The AP-GfK poll found that as well.

Both parties, in their attitudes and plans for immigration reform, believe that people who are in the position in which Jews have found themselves all too often throughout the galus, deserve to be welcomed to this country with open arms. But the political climate around the issue is so toxic, that citizens who hear about the problems being caused by immigration tend to see the solution as restricting all aspects of immigration until a real solution can be worked out, lest the “crisis” they hear spoken about get bigger and bigger. But then it is the innocent people, currently the children fleeing violence in South and Central America, who have to bear the fallout of the political battles.

If we accept that, tomorrow it can very well be people from somewhere else.