In our hearts, Jews are immigrants. The very name “Hebrews,” Ivri’im, comes from the word ‘to cross over’; Hebrews are boundary crossers.
Our founding story portrays us as refugees arriving to our land, and Judaism itself is a religion forged in exile and the experience of powerlessness, where stock was placed in prayer, study, and building just societies rather than in wealth, arms, or might. And so the Torah tells us: “You shall not oppress the stranger; you know the heart of the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Ex. 23:9) Especially at this time of the year, when we prepare for Passover, we remember what it means to be powerless and unloved in a land not our own.
All of this should lead us to support and promote legal immigration to this country. But what can it teach us about those who enter the country illegally in search of a living wage or a better life?
I think the key word in our verse is “oppress.” We are not called on to welcome those who cross into this country illegally with open arms, but neither are we allowed to place crushing burdens on them in order to criminalize their presence and make their lives more difficult as the bill the House of Representatives passed in December does.
Unfortunately, many of the measures currently being proposed in Washington and statehouses across the country are mere posturing that address neither the underlying causes of the flow of illegal migrants across the border nor the unspeakable conditions immigrants find once here.
Illegal immigrants do not have an easy life; and helping to move them slowly on the path toward citizenship as the Senate bill proposes will not change this is in the short term. That bill is not an amnesty that rewards those who broke the rules; it is a way to bring common sense and even a measure of decency to this large underclass of workers on whom our economy relies.
Should we open our borders indiscriminately? Absolutely not–it’s important to give priority to those who play by the rules and also to keep control over our border for security.
Should we reward those who cross illegally? No–but the Senate bill, with its penalties for illegal immigrants and requirement that they pay back taxes before heading down the path toward citizenship is hardly that. Instead, we can deal humanely with a class of workers whose plight is created in part by globalization, our existing immigration policies, and our insatiable demand for cheap goods and services. In other words, we can heed the Jewish experience of exile and the injunction not to oppress. Then we will live up to the words of our tradition: “Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Prov. 31:9)