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Judaism and Immigration Reform

Judaism has something to say about Immigration Reform. And, it starts with Welcoming the Stranger, and Protecting the Weak.

Immigration Reform has been a hot issue, these past few months. A Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill has recently passed through the Senate, and the house is now debating what, if any, bill it might pass. What does Judaism have to offer this conversation?

Clearly, there isn’t a single “correct” Jewish position on Immigration Reform. That’s especially true when we’re talking about specific policies or legislation. Judaism doesn’t tell us precisely how long is too long for a path to citizenship to take. Judaism has little if anything to offer in helping us decide what percentage, precisely, of our money should we be spending on border security, as opposed to other aspects of Immigration policy.

But, Judaism does have quite a bit to say about values — which values should be important to us, and which values should undergird our society.

One of the values integral to Judaism is Hachnasot Orchim—welcoming the stranger. Welcoming the stranger has always been part of Judaism. In the Book of Genesis, we hear of Abraham, the first Jew, who was sitting in the entrance of his tent, when three strangers passed by. He immediately invited them in, and treated them like royalty — preparing a meal for them himself, not even letting his servants do it for him. That was probably fairly common and expected — we still see echoes of this kind of behavior in that part of the world. Our people inherited this tradition, and we built it into our theology.

You see, there is a natural, human tendency to favor those to whom we are the closest. We tend to take care of our own, and to be wary or afraid of “the other.” The mitzvah of welcoming the stranger is, in part, a counterbalance to this reflex. It reminds us that this person, whom I do not know is, among other things, a human being. And that means that they were created in the image of God. The moment I encounter him or her, I have an obligation to him or her. There is no one — not a single, solitary person — from whom I can completely turn away, and to whom I have no obligation.

These people — these immigrants — who are not, at least not yet, part of our nation are still people. And we have an obligation towards them. We have to welcome them.

We can’t welcome everyone equally, of course. No one is suggesting that we don’t have any Immigration policy — that we open our borders and make everyone and anyone a citizen. But, our starting place has to be one of care and welcoming. We have to work to figure out how we can bring the greatest number of people possible into our country, and into our lives, rather than starting from a place of rejection and isolationism.

It would be incredibly ironic for us, as Jews, to be less than welcoming when it comes to immigration policy. Because, we’ve often been the victim of it. We’ve been the victims of restrictions on our own migrations for centuries. We’ve fled persecution and been told, time and again, “you’re not welcome here.” Even when others were trying to wipe our people off the map, we’ve been told to go somewhere else. Just not here.

And, in less dramatic times, we still had to leave one home to seek a better life elsewhere. Very few of us in the Jewish community have an American heritage which goes back more than a few generations. We are a people of immigrants in a nation of immigrants. It is our repeated memory of being a stranger in a strange land which is supposed to drive our moral dedication to helping others to never feel like strangers themselves. Or, as it says in Leviticus (19:33-34), “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. 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.”

Because we were strangers, we know how it feels. And so, we are commanded to help other strangers. We have an obligation to immigrants not in spite of the fact that they are strangers, but precisely because of it.

We also have to remember that many immigrants, whether legal or illegal, are among the most vulnerable in our society. And that’s another, perhaps even greater reason that we are obligated to help them. We are told over and over that we are obligated to protect the weak — the Bible commands us to protect the widow and the orphan, because those categories were the weakest, and the most vulnerable, in ancient society.

By contrast, “They’re not my problem” appears exactly never in our text.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the specifics of policy, discussions about “who should get in first” and rhetoric about amnesty and such that we can forget a very basic, fundamental fact: we’re talking about people here. Were talking about people — not “illegals,” but people — who are suffering. People who, perhaps because they came here illegally, are not afforded, or do not know about, the legal protections to which they are entitled. They are exploited and abused, with startling regularity and severity. Even if we hold them accountable for entering this country illegally, it should still shock our moral centers that human beings are treated in this way. Workers are abused physically, and are threatened with deportation should they utter any protest, or seek help. Children are left without their parents, often put in dubious foster care, because their parents were deported, while they weren’t. Husbands and wives are kept apart for years and years because the one who came here, legally or not, doesn’t have the right, or perhaps just the resources, to bring their loved one over. Young women are forced into slavery and the sex trade, because as far as society is concerned, they don’t even exist. It’s an abomination.

As I said, the policy issues are deeply, deeply complicated. And, no one policy, or set of policies, is going to solve all these problems. But, that simply doesn’t give us the right to lose our sense of empathy for people who are suffering. The fact that we can’t make the problem go away in no way diminishes our responsibility to make it better. We have to remember that behind every story, behind every argument, behind every policy debate live real people with real lives. And they’re in real pain.

That, more than anything else, drives my support of Immigration Reform. It is a belief that, flawed, imperfect and incomplete as it will inevitably be, it is a step in the direction of justice, and of mercy. It is a step in the direction of forging a society which more closely holds to the ideals and values set out in our tradition.

Your conscience will tell you how to act, when it comes to laws and policies. Judaism can’t tell you, and neither can I, which candidate to support, or which bill to protest. but, I urge you to do something. Call your Senator, or call your representative. Urge them to act. Urge them to act in a way which will make our country, and our society, a place which welcomes the stranger, protects the weak, and strives to be a shining example of our greatest ideals.

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg is rabbi of Congregation Beth Am in Tampa, Florida.  This is a version of the sermon he gave at Congregation Beth Am on Friday, July 19th.

7 replies on “Judaism and Immigration Reform”

Every time that Rabbis discuss immigration they bring up Abraham and Hachnasat Orchim. Or we talk about Pikuach Nefesh. Neither of these apply to our current immigration problem.

I am an immigrant born in Shanghai, grew up in Argentina, and left it because of their anti-Semitism. Here pikuach nefesh comes in, in WWII we needed pikuach nefesh and did not get it. This has nothing to do with immigrants who want to better their lives and do so illegally by ignoring our borders.

I wish to better their lives, and we should work diligently so that this is accomplished in their country, not necessarily ours.

Another argument I hear is that we need these people as workers.
When our work participation having gone down 3% since 2003 (, this argument clearly does not hold water (3% of a work force of 153M is close to 4.5M people who have lost, and this does not include those underemployed). We need to especially consider that what is meant is that we need illegal labor, working below the minimum wage laws, and exploited by Hotels, Restaurants, and contractors.

So we neither need our illegals as laborers, nor as a matter of pikuach nefesh. So what should be our position on an immigration strategy? Let us make it as one sided as possible, the US needs
1. Intelligent, trained workers — Lets accept anyone with an accredited college degree or who can pass our graduate record exam in the physical and engineering sciences. Philosophers and Rabbis need not apply (I am one of the two)
2. Let’s accept anyone with sufficient capital to start a business and hire people (say $250K?)
3. Lets establish a labor rate (say 70%) at which we would accept much lower immigration standards, but lets distribute permits evenly throughout the world. They don’t all need to know Spanish (as I do).
4. Firstly and most importantly, lets make sure no one gets into our country illegally, so that we can have a de facto immigration law which matches our de jure immigration law. BUILD THE FENCE!!!

What is un-Jewish about the above proposal? I have not dealt with those illegals already here since that is not an emigration issue. It is an issue of how to deal with people who overstay their visas, and people who should not be here at all. There we can apply rachamim, in some cases pikuach nefesh, and common sense.

We are, as usual conflating issues which do not intermix well except as things that excite our emotions.

Leon – you state that this isn’t a case of hachnasat orchim, but you don’t say why. Just because other cases might be more pressing – might indeed be a matter of pikuach nefesh – why does that mean that, in these cases, other, less drastic categories can’t apply?

In case I’m. Or being clear: your immigration was a case of pikuach nefesh. These cases aren’t. Fine. Why aren’t they hachnasat orchim, then?

Hachnasat orchim refers to people visiting, not to immigrants. The three angels that met Abraham at Mamre did not become members of his household. Guests are not the same as immigrants, whether legal or illegal.
By the way, we came as legal immigrants in 1957. We were stateless in Argentina, but were certainly not accepted because we were being persecuted. We were discriminated against and my brother was denied the pursuit of his career of choice. That is why we legally immigrated to the US.


I thought I answered this yesterday, but I’ll try again.
Hachnasat Orchim means welcoming guests. That is what Abraham did, he made them feel at home, and then, after they had given him the information that they wished to give them he said goodbye to them.
A guest is a person that leaves, not a person that stays in your house forever.

It’s a fair point – Hachnasat Orchim is probably the wrong halachic category. But, we’re still commanded to love/befriend the stranger, for we were strangers in a strange land.

Of course, it can still be argued that the halacha doesn’t require us to make these strangers citizens. But, I’m not making a halachic argument. I’m arguing that the larger value/principle of being kind to, and seeing to the wellbeing of strangers is important. And, that value has to be one of the driving forces behind immigration reform: a kindness towards foreigners. It isn’t the whole thing, of course. But, an essential piece.

I am all for what you say. We should, as individuals, be kind to strangers.
Even as a government we should be kind to strangers and make sure we open our borders equally to peoples of all countries.
Why are the poor in Mexico, and central America more precious to us than those from India Vietnam, etc. Let’s set the number of people we are willing to accept unconditionally and hold a lottery so that all nations are represented fairly, in relationship to their populations. Then let’s pay their trip to the US and welcome them as legal immigrants.
Again, closing our borders has to be the first step to make such kindness possible. Otherwise we are guilty of neglect and inhumanity since we permit proximity, not humanity, to dictate our charity.
How large that lottery should be for is a matter for negotiation. We need to take into account our own labor needs and inactive labor force. We should not exacerbate the plight of our poor in order to allow the even poorer of other countries to come and be exploited.

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