Immigration — An Issue Far Beyond the Border

Signs placed by pro-immigrants protesters during a demonstration in San Francisco.  (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)
Signs placed by pro-immigrants protesters during a demonstration in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Eric Risberg)

While recent talk about immigration reform has focused on the Texas border crisis, the topic has reverberations in many other sectors, including the many émigrés from Israel, Europe, and the Former Soviet Union (FSU) living in the Orthodox community.

“Talk of reform is just an admission that the system is broken,” said Yosef Chaim Salazar, an attorney who has done extensive work and research on immigration, commenting on the general state of immigration.

Salazar said that one of the biggest problems in the present system is the amount of time it takes for legal applicants to go through the process, citing the present backlog that is so great that individuals wishing to enter the county could have to wait years before even being allowed to apply for entry visas.

He also identified the government’s “family based” system as part of the problem.

“Presently, the easiest way to get into America is to get sponsored by a relative,” said Salazar.  “Such people often have no real way to contribute to the economy or help the country.”

He said that an “employment based” system, focusing on the applicant’s skills, would reward those immigrants who would be beneficial to the American economy. The present system, he claimed, penalizes just these candidates. To illustrate his point, Salazar cited a study he made of nurses applying from India. “These nurses had degrees and licenses, but were given a 10-year wait to apply for legal entry to the U.S. Does that make sense?”

A statement from the office of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) said that the many immigration requests from the New York Orthodox community include lawful permanent resident applications (mostly family-based), naturalization applications, visitor visas, and student visas.

Israel Rose, a partner in a New York immigration law firm, points out that “people who come for marriage typically have an easy time, if they know what they are doing.”

The experience of a Boro Park resident who emigrated from Belgium 14 years ago to marry in America illustrates this point:“I applied when I was a chassan at the consulate in Brussels. I got a Green Card very soon after my chasunah. I never had any problem with the system.”

Individuals wishing to immigrate to the United States require one of many types of entry visas, including student, employment and several others.

Rose said that another relatively easy way that many Orthodox Jews are able to enter the country is with a “religious worker visa.”

“It [the visa] covers teachers in religious schools, shochtim, people who work in shuls, religious non-profits and the like,” he said.  “Typically it is easy for these people to get Green Cards.”

Permanent Resident Status Cards, better known as Green Cards, entitle the holder to work legally. After three to five years of a “clean record” with a Green Card, one can apply for citizenship.

But the wait time itself is not only inconvenient, but can be the cause of exactly what the immigration system is built to avoid.

“People don’t realize how challenging it is for people who don’t have an immediate family here to stay here legally,” says one immigrant, who agreed to tell his story on the condition of total anonymity. “In my case, I had come on a student visa, graduated from an American college, but was unable to work legally while waiting for my work authorization papers to come through.

“According to the rules, I was entitled to a work authorization — eventually. But left without any source of income as the months passed, I had only two options: break the law and work illegally, or give up and return to my home country. I chose the former, and don’t even feel guilty about it: the system is broken,” the immigrant, who eventually became an American citizen and now heads a very successful company, revealed.

“Even for those getting married to Americans, it can take years after their marriage for a Green Card to come through. How are they supposed to support themselves in the meantime?”

What has changed the most over the years are challenges facing Jews from the FSU seeking to emigrate.

“Twenty years ago, any Russian Jew could come and claim asylum due to Soviet anti-Semitism,” said a former Moscow resident now living in Monsey.

“Now most frum Russians can still get it if they say that it is hard to be religious in Russia, but plenty of people get rejected at the interview and have to go to court to prove their case.”

Asylum status is given to those claiming that they cannot live safely in their home countries. It entitles that holder to full benefits of the welfare system and is usually a relatively easy step towards citizenship.

Echoing Mr. Salazar’s statements, the Monsey resident said what surprised him most was how hard it was for some friends with good educations and employment skills to get Green Cards, while other, much less qualified people have a far easier time.

Mr. Rose said that the government’s asylum polices depend heavily on political considerations;

“When Morsi was in power in Egypt, basically all Egyptian Christians got asylum; now they would have to prove the specific difficulty that they are having. If a Christian from Iraq who wants to apply now all they would probably have to do is walk in the consulate door.”

Rose posited that any advances in immigration reform would only benefit those who are caught in the midst of legal immigration;

“If they grant asylum to so many illegal immigrants, they are not going to penalize those who are here legally.”