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On the Border

Recently, The New York Times published an op-ed by Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who expressed his indignation at HR 4437, an immigration bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives in December that includes provisions for a 700-mile wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and making it a felony to be in the U.S. without proper immigration documents. The cardinal argued:

“What the church supports is an overhaul of the immigration system so that legal status and legal channels for migration replace illegal status and illegal immigration. Creating legal structures for migration protects not only those who migrate but also our nation, by giving the government the ability to better identify who is in the country as well as to control who enters it…


Enforcement-only proposals like the Border Protection act take the country in the opposite direction. Increasing penalties, building more detention centers and erecting walls along our border with Mexico, as the act provides, will not solve the problem.”

Instinctively, I agree with Cardinal Mahony’s condemnation of the pending House legislation. While the legislation is not without merit–people are scared and perhaps a good old-fashioned fence might just work–nonetheless, the bill echoes the kind of shameless vote-pandering we saw in the Schiavo fiasco. The House bill is ultimately more hysterical than realistic or sober. It plays on the public’s fear and distrust of the “other.”

To be sure as it now stands there are a number of other other options being debated in the senate that are far more sober and nuanced, (see Esther Pan’s analysis on the CFR website.)


As to the Jewish perspective on this immigration debate: as with so many subjects that are a matter of Jewish concern, it’s not so simple and straightforward. First things first, however: There is no Jewish position on immigration. Nonetheless, there is a vast bodyl of Jewish wisdom regarding the issues of security and vulnerability that I think shed a great deal of light on the immigration issue.

At its heart, the immigration issue is a contest between two forces inherent in the human psyche–a desire for freedom and openness and the need to be secure and safe.

Jewish wisdom echoes the cardinal’s claim that it is a divine imperative “to help people in need. It is our Gospel mandate, in which Christ instructs us to clothe the naked, feed the poor and welcome the stranger.” The only difference between Jewish wisdom and the cardinal’s is the manner through which that goal is achieved.


The cardinal’s position highlights the beautiful universality of the Church, with its confident open posture. Sometimes such an approach is precisely the proper antidote to those spreading fear. Yet, at other times such an open posture can seem all too messianic and unreasonable in a irrational and sacrilegious world of suicide bombers and terrorists.

While there are Jewish sources that express the same openness voiced by the cardinal, for example, Lamentations 3:30, which says “offer his cheek to him that smites him,” such ideas are balanced with the admonition “if one comes up to attack you get up before him and attack him.”

While man’s natural inclination is to defend himself and fence himself in, God and His otherness challenges us to move beyond our comfortable confines and reach out to other human beings, inviting them into our lives. As of now, the pending federal legislation to criminalize illegal aliens and those who help them highlights only the other side–that of fear and security. It fails to speak to the side of us that welcomes in the poor and sick and places abrahamic hospitality at the center of life.

Let’s hope that the more magnanimous bipartisan proposal that emerged in the Senate Judiciary Committee yesterday–the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act sponsored by senators Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts and John McCain of Arizona–gains support. If not, it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

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posted March 31, 2006 at 4:41 pm

Balderdash!! I suggest Rabbi Stern invite all the illegal immigrants to come and live under his roof and let him pay for their medical & educatioal expenses.

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posted March 31, 2006 at 6:12 pm

Right on, brother. When it comes to abortion, left-wing rabbis say the only law that has any force is (their version of) Jewish law. But when it comes to spending, they send the secular polis the bill.

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Barbara Goldin

posted March 31, 2006 at 6:39 pm

Our U.S. Government created this mess of illegal immigrants; and, made immigration so easy that the majority of the illegal immigrants have no desire to learn English, learn about American History, learn what the U.S. Constitution is and is not. Although I do not approve of fines on these illlegal immigrants, I do support removing all educational, medical benefits from them, and round up all the employers who hired them and put them in jail. The majority of the illegal immigrants are not in America because their very survival depends on it as in the case of the Jews during and prior to WWII, the Cambodians, The VietNamese, and others who fled becauuse of torture and death; therefore, I do not agree with your premise for keeping illegals in America. All illegal immigrants and their families should be rounded up, sent back home regardless of the cost (we always find ways to afford things that we cannot afford), and all of them should reapply to become U.S. citizens. The other alternative is to void the on going 400,000 annual guest workers, and round up all the illegal immigrants, and have them apply as guest workers annually for three years,and then either go back to their countries, or apply for U.S. citizenship, using their stay as guest workers as credit toward becoming a U.S. citizen. ps: I will still feed and welcome any stranger in my midst whether legal or illegal;however, that I support any lengthy stay of illegal immigrants, and support them going back home, and securing our borders of our own counbtry as other nations do theirs. Barbara Goldin

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Barbara Goldin

posted March 31, 2006 at 6:43 pm

Correction to my comment. I do not support any lengthy stay of illegal immigrants. Barbara Goldin

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posted April 1, 2006 at 3:59 pm

None of the rabbinical comments addressed the responsibility of Mexico to do something to help their own people improve their situations so they won’t be forced to immigrate to the United States in a manner that is not legal. Mexico is long overdue in stepping up to the plate to help their own people. The Catholic Church could also do something in Mexican communities (in Mexico) to help them help themselves economically, and in the areas of education and health care. But now, there are millions of them in our country. And they march carrying Mexican flags. It’s hard for me to watch that and believe that they understand and care about the United States. Cheryl

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posted April 4, 2006 at 7:07 am

My question to you Rabbi is “Is ther some number beyond which you would limit immigration”? To allow all to come to this country to set up little other countries in our midst is to destroy what we have and what the others come here for.

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