No human, immigrant or otherwise, is ‘illegal’

As we conclude the Passover festival, Jews around the world have celebrated a week that commemorates the Exodus from slavery to freedom.  The Seder, the holiday meal, is meant not only as a reenactment of past events but as an invitation to continue the struggle for freedom.

One of our nation’s urgent struggles is immigration reform. For centuries, people from around the world escaping oppression and poverty, hoping to build a better life for their families and themselves, came to our American shores.  We are a nation of immigrants.  My grandparents arrived in America in the early 1900s.  I shudder to think what would have happened had they not been welcomed.  I know of the unfortunate fate of the rest of my relatives and others who stayed in Eastern Europe too long, only to eventually succumb to the Nazis and the indifference of civilized society. My grandparents struggled to adjust to a society often ambivalent about their presence.

Yet the American immigrant experience has helped nourish our country’s source of strength – a pluralistic society.   Science, architecture, law, journalism, medicine and music have been strengthened in ways that have benefited us all. From Albert Einstein to David Ho, from Justice Felix Frankfurter to John Muir and Irving Berlin, immigrants have blessed America.

However, today our immigration system is broken, slowing economic growth, causing family   heartache, placing undue hardship on children and creating unnecessary security concerns. Federal inaction and poor policy have had devastating consequences.  There are currently an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the Unites States without legal status.  There are few legal channels for workers wanting to migrate to the United States.  Problems with the employment and visa systems continue to result in separated families and cases being backlogged, sometimes for decades.

The inadequacy of the federal immigration system has also led to the creation of a patch work of state and local laws and policies – many of which create the potential of civil rights violations, place immigrants in harmful situations and eliminate access to public benefits, including in-state college tuition for children who have lived here all their lives and graduated from our public high schools.  Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 and Indiana’s Senate Bill 590 passed in 2011 are prime examples.  Portions of both have been struck down by U.S. Circuit Courts.

In 1939 the termillegal immigrant” was first used as a slur by the British toward Jews who were fleeing the Nazis and entering Palestine without authorization. But Elie Wiesel reminds us, “no human being is illegal”.

Now is the time to reform our country’s immigration system.  We should applaud and encourage bipartisan efforts to introduce legislation that facilitates pathways to citizenship for immigrants currently in the U.S., creates a better employment visa system and lowers wait times for family members seeking to be reunited should be applauded.

In the Bible the commandment to “love the stranger” occurs far more times than the command to “love your neighbor as yourself”.   The stranger who sojourns with you shall be to you as the home-born, and you shall love the stranger as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34). 

It is easier to love your neighbor, even the one with whom you disagree, than to care for those who are clearly ‘other’ in language, dress and custom.  Yet that is exactly what our religio-moral heritage demands.  That is precisely what has made our country great.  Diversity has enriched our cultural life and enhanced the textured fabric of our society. Out of the many ‘others’ – one – e pluribus unum.

A renewed immigration system should uphold the best of our national values: equality, fairness, due process of law, and respect.  The principles permeating our faith traditions are reminders of our ethical obligation to advocate for just immigration policies and a comprehensive reform of a dysfunctional system.