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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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