Kalman Resnick: ‘Our Immigration System is Broken, and Everybody Knows It’

Kalman Resnick

For 41 years, longtime JCUA Leader and prominent attorney Kalman Resnick has defended the rights of immigrants and their families. JCUA is pleased to share the following Dvar Torah, presented by Kalman at Beth Emet The Free Synagogue on Jan. 9, expressing the urgency of comprehensive immigration reform in the U.S and why you should care.

This week’s Torah portion, Sh’mot, provides a spectacular backdrop for this D’var Torah. In Sh’mot we begin reading the Book of Exodus. At the beginning of Exodus, we are enslaved in Egypt. G-d instructs Moses and his brother Aaron to lead our people to freedom. Moses resists G-d’s instruction, telling G-d that he, Moses, is not up to the task and expressing his doubt that the people will follow his leadership. But G-d insists and Moses and Aaron proceed to execute a plan for our liberation from slavery.

Tonight I will address why this story of our Exodus from Egypt commands that we as American Jews support the enactment of progressive and comprehensive immigration reform and why in the absence of such legislation, we must support our President’s Executive Orders protecting approximately one-half of our nation’s more than 11.5 million undocumented residents from deportation.

At the beginning of his speech on November 20th announcing his latest executive action protecting undocumented immigrants, President Obama declared:

“For more than 200 years, our tradition of welcoming immigrants from around the world has given us a tremendous advantage over other nations. It’s kept us youthful, dynamic, and entrepreneurial. It has shaped our character as a people with limitless possibilities – people not trapped by our past, but able to remake ourselves as we choose.

But today, our immigration system is broken – and everybody knows it.”

‘For You Were Strangers  in the land of Egypt.’

At the conclusion of his speech, the President told the story of Astrid, an undocumented college student who came to the United States at age 4 and would be protected by his executive action. The President then challenged the American people:

“Are we a nation that kicks out a striving, hopeful immigrant like Astrid, or are we a nation that finds a way to welcome her in? Scripture tells us that we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger – we were strangers once, too.

“My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too. And whether our forebears were strangers who crossed the Atlantic, or the Pacific, or the Rio Grande, we are here only because this country welcomed them in, and taught them that to be an American is about something more than what we look like, or what our last names are, or how we worship. What makes us Americans is our shared commitment to an ideal – that all of us are created equal, and all of us have the chance to make of our lives what we will. That’s the country our parents and grandparents and generations before them built for us. That’s the tradition we must uphold. That’s the legacy we must leave for those who are yet to come.”

Our President’s reference to Scriptures was to our Torah. The very passages to which he is referring are at the heart of our Passover Seder. We read out loud from our Haggadot these words:

“You shall rejoice before G-d with your son and daughter…and the stranger, and the orphan, and the widow in your midst. Always remember that you were slaves in the land of Egypt. You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger…Remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt.

“Still we remember: It was we who were slaves,…we who were strangers. And therefore, we recall these words as well: You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them….You shall love them as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

This instruction not to oppress the stranger is repeated in the Torah 36 times, more than other.

Growing up in Evanston in this congregation in the 1960s, these words compelled me to join with my African-American high school classmates in protesting racism and segregation in Evanston.

In 1973 when I graduated from law school, these same words motivated me to become an advocate for new immigrants from Latin America, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, who beginning in the mid-1960s started to come to the United States in increasing numbers. For 41 years I have been defending new immigrants to the United States, their families and their communities. At this critical time in the struggle for immigrant justice, I am giving this D’var Torah to ask my congregation’s help with this cause.

Executive Actions and Political Resistance

The President’s most recent executive action expands the number of eligible undocumented young people protected from deportation under the Executive Order issued in June 2012 to include immigrants who first came to the United States before age 16 and have been residing continuously in the United States since before 2010. Some 600,000 child immigrants, more than 32,000 of whom live in Illinois, have already been granted protection and work authorization under this program, known by the acronym, DACA. In addition, for the first time the President’s November 20th’ executive action protects parents of U.S. citizens and permanent resident aliens who came to the United States before 2010 from deportation and grants them work authorization. Some 4 to 5 million undocumented parents will qualify for this new program known by the acronym DAPA.

The vast majority of undocumented immigrants are contributing to our nation’s well-being through their hard work at modest wages and all too often in unsafe working conditions. They clean our houses and maintain our yards; they care for our young, our elderly, and our disabled; they work at our restaurants, our hotels, our factories, and on our farms. They live in all 50 states, in urban, suburban and rural communities, and yes, right here in Evanston. Despite many obstacles, most of their children, in just one generation are succeeding, many graduating from our colleges and universities, providing the skilled workforce needed by our changing economy.

Public opinion research demonstrates that a majority of Americans support immigration reform that would provide our undocumented population legal status and a pathway to citizenship. Nevertheless, primarily on account of resistance by Republican politicians, Congress is no closer to passing such reform. Instead, Republican politicians pander to the fear of immigrants, much they like they use the issue of race, in order to attract electoral support from white working people while actually opposing their economic interests. Republican politicians resist any reform providing a pathway to citizenship because they recognize that once granted citizenship these new citizens will likely vote against Republican candidates.

In the aftermath of President’s November 20th announcement, Republican Congressmen are seeking to block the President’s Executive Orders through legislation and together with a number of Republican controlled states court challenges. Just today, House Republicans introduced legislation to block implementation of the DAPA program protecting from deportation parents of U.S. Citizens and permanent residents and to rescind the DACA program protecting young immigrants who entered the U.S. before the age of 16. The legislation if enacted would put the more than 600.000 young immigrants already granted DACA status at risk of deportation. Only 12 Republican House members objected. As Jews, we should be in the forefront of the struggle for comprehensive immigration reform and until such a reform is enacted we must support the President’s executive actions protecting undocumented immigrants.

The exodus to the United States of Jews seeking to escape persecution and poverty in Europe has much in common with the exodus of our nation’s new immigrants who have come to the United States to escape poverty, injustice and inequality in Latin America, the Caribbean and elsewhere. Just like Jewish immigrants of past generations, today’s new immigrants are being scapegoated for our societal problems and over the past 40 years have been subject to toughened immigration laws that have made it impossible for many immigrants to obtain lawful status in our nation even when they are married to U.S. citizens, have U.S. citizen children, or are the parents or siblings of U.S. citizens.

‘We are most at risk when the societies in which we live become unjust and oppress those within them.’

Our history demonstrates that in late 1800s and early 1900s when Eastern European Jews starting arriving in large numbers, many Americans did not consider us to be white; instead we were identified as members of the Jewish race and subject to discrimination in housing, employment, and higher education. In the aftermath of World War I, Congress greatly restricted immigration to the United States in order to decrease the number of Jews and other disfavored peoples immigrating to the United States. These restrictive immigration laws were the reason why so many European Jews wanting to escape Nazi persecution were denied refuge in our nation.

My family’s own immigration history is instructive. My orphaned grandmother, Mollie Bronstain, a 17 year child immigrant, and her 12 year old sister Rose were denied entry to the United States in 1911 at Ellis Island because of the growing hostility to Jewish immigration and the involvement of so many Jews, including members of my family. in the labor movement. Thankfully an aunt is Saskatchewan was able to arrange for Mollie and Rose to join her in Canada instead. Life in rural Saskatchewan was quite difficult. In 1924, Mollie and my grandfather Mendel and their 5 children, including my 5 year old mother, entered the United States illegally from Canada because there was no way for them to immigrate to the United States under the newly enacted restrictions on immigration. In 1927, immigration officials in Chicago caught my grandfather and soon thereafter my grandparents and their now 6 children, including a daughter, my Aunt Babe, who was born here, were deported to Canada. For my cousins whose families migrated to France, their history was much more painful.. During World War II, several of our cousins were arrested in Paris by French police, held for four months at a French detention center, and then deported to their deaths upon arrival at Auschwitz.

The journeys of our families to safety in America should help us understand the meaning of the Book of Exodus for the role we should be playing in welcoming today’s newcomers to the United States and protecting them from injustice. We must protect new immigrants because our Torah commands us to protect them. We should also be motivated to protect them because as citizens of this nation we bear a significant responsibility for their presence and status in our society: first, because American foreign and economic policies have contributed greatly to creating the conditions in their home countries which caused them to flee poverty and injustice; and second, because we are among the beneficiaries of their hard labor at modest wages in our homes, in our communities, and in our businesses and work places. Moreover, we should be motivated to protect new immigrants because our history demonstrates that the Jewish people are most at risk when the societies in which we live become unjust and oppress those within them.

There is a powerful precedent for Beth Emet as a community to become involved in seeking justice for new immigrants. In 1986, during the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, when hundreds of thousands of Central Americans were fleeing to the United States, the Board of Directors of Beth Emet voted to become a sanctuary for such refugees. As a community, we provided housing, financial and legal support, and employment for two undocumented Guatemalan Mayan families who ultimately were granted the right to remain in the United States.

Once again, Beth Emet should become involved in the struggle for immigrant justice. We should join with our neighbors at the Jewish Reconstruction Congregation and at various churches and mosques in the Chicago area and become actively involved in the struggle for immigrant justice. We should also work with the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and other Jewish social justice organizations involved in this struggle. In the near future I will help lead a meeting of congregants interested in Beth Emet becoming part of the struggle for immigrant justice. We will invite Chicago area leaders of the immigrant rights movement to speak at the meeting about their work. Look for an EmetMail announcement of the meeting. And please consider attending.

The story of Exodus is alive in the lives of America’s new immigrants. Recognizing this and our obligation as Jews to welcome the stranger, I ask this congregation to participate in their struggle for justice.

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