G-d forgives, but unfortunately not the United States.

Categories: Immigrant Rights, Immigration Reform

This blog is taken from the D’var Torah given by Immigration Attorney and JCUA Member Kalman Resnick at Beth Emet Synagogue last Friday.

Shabbat Shalom.  The Book of Exodus from which we continue reading this Shabbat has resonated through my life.

As a young child, I saw the parallels between our Exodus from Egypt and the mass departure of Jews from Eastern Europe between the 1880s and World War I.  During this period, hundreds of thousand of Jews emigrated from Eastern Europe to the United States, Canada, and Latin America seeking safety from the perils of anti-Semitism.  The difficulties my own family faced in this journey highlighted the strong forces that opposed our immigration to the United States.  In 1911, my maternal grandmother, Mollie, a 17 year old child orphan, and her 12 year sister, Rose, were denied entry to the United States at Ellis Island on account of their brother-in-law’s leadership in the garment workers strike of 1910 in Chicago.  In 1927, my 8 year old mother and her parents and siblings were deported from Chicago back to Canada after remaining in the United States illegally.  Restrictive immigration quotas barred them from immigrating lawfully to the United States.  These same restrictive quotas prevented millions of Jews in Europe from finding safety in the United States during the Holocaust, condemning members of my family and many of yours to death in the ghettos and concentration camps of Europe.

As a student at Evanston Township High School in the mid-1960s, I saw the parallels between our Exodus from Egyptian slavery and the migration to Evanston of the families of my African American classmates, fleeing Jim Crow segregation in South Carolina.  The stories my classmates’ parents shared with me of the lynchings and brutal segregation their families experienced in South Carolina motivated me to join the NAACP Youth Council in high school and fight for racial justice in Evanston and in the South.

In the 1970s, as a young legal services lawyer in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, I saw the parallels between our history and the mass exodus of Mexicans and Central Americans fleeing poverty, political oppression, and violence in the hope of finding safety and prosperity in the United States.  I committed myself to use my skills as a lawyer to defend the legal rights of these new immigrants and their growing communities.

Over the past two years, my 46 years of experience as an immigrant rights lawyer has enabled me to mentor hundreds of lawyers and many immigrant rights organizations committed to resisting the attacks by Trump and the Republican Party on undocumented immigrants, on Muslims impacted by Trump’s Muslim Bans, and on refugees seeking safety in the United States.  In 2018, I traveled four times to Central America and Mexico as part of a regional effort to develop strategies for defending migrants fleeing Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.  In the fight for immigrant justice, I have been thrilled to be able to work closely with Senator Durbin, a true champion of immigrant rights, and members of the Illinois’ Congressional delegation, including newly elected Congressman Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, with whom I have worked since the 1970s when I hired him as a paralegal at the Legal Services Center for Immigrants, and Jan Schakowsky, a member of this Congregation.

This synagogue has always been a partner to me in my work as an immigrant rights activist.  In 1980s, I was on the Board of Trustees when Beth Emet voted to become a sanctuary congregation for Central American refugees.  We provided housing, employment, and financial and legal support for two indigenous Guatemalan families over several years.  With this congregation’s help, both families ultimately were able to obtain lawful permanent residence.  In 2017, I was proud that once again our synagogue voted to become a sanctuary synagogue committed to the defense of immigrants and refugees.

I asked to give tonight’s D’var Torah to share my perspective on why it is so important that we as American Jews continue to rally to the defense of immigrants and refugees and their families.  The attacks of the Trump Administration on immigrants and refugees are expanding every day.  These attacks are harming families throughout the United States impacted by the expulsion and threatened expulsion of undocumented family members, families at our southern border seeking refuge from violence and poverty in Central America, and Muslim and Christian families fleeing wars in Middle East.

We have more than 11 million undocumented members of our society.  The 11 million include over 700,000 young people with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (known by the acronym “DACA”) permits and more than 300,000 immigrants granted Temporary Protected Status (known as “TPS”) because of catastrophic conditions in their home countries.  TPS recipients include 195,000 immigrants from El Salvador, 57,000 from Honduras, 50,000 from Haiti, and 5,000 from Nicaragua.  All DACA recipients came to the U.S. before June 2008 and while they were under 16 years of age.  The TPS recipients in danger of losing their status have all lived here for more than 17 years.  The 11 million also include several hundred thousand immigrants whose deportation the Obama Administration stopped in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion.  All 11 million undocumented are now under threat of deportation as the Trump Administration pursues its plan to end DACA, terminate Temporary Protected Status for most TPS recipients, and deport those previously granted prosecutorial discretion.  The struggle to stop the end of DACA and TPS and to preserve our asylum laws is now in the federal courts, with as frightening as that may seem, a Republican majority Supreme Court likely to make the final decisions in these cases.

The magnitude of the problem faced by our undocumented neighbors is much greater than just 11 million since on account of the enactment of a series of restrictive immigration statutes over the past 50 years most of the undocumented live in mixed status families with US citizen and lawful permanent residents.  These mixed status families live under constant threat of family separation.  I estimate that the number of people living in such mixed families exceeds 35 million.  While the number of people living is such mixed status families far exceeds the number of refugee families being separated along the border, the threat to these mixed status families has unfortunately failed to capture the attention of the American people to the same extent as the refugee families at our southern border.

Fundamental to understanding the problem of these mixed status families are the restrictive immigration laws Congress enacted over the past 50 years which have made it impossible for most undocumented immigrants to obtain legal status even when they have U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident spouses, children, parents, or siblings.  In 1965, our country enacted its first numerical limitation on Western Hemisphere immigration.  The limit implemented in 1968 was set at 120,000 per year.  In 1977, we implemented for the first time a numerical limitation on per country immigration from the Western Hemisphere, a limitation which now stands at 25,000 a year.  As a result of this numerical limitation on legal immigration, the waiting list to immigrate legally from Mexico is more than 20 years long for most categories of relatives of US citizens.  Congress made this legal nightmare even worse in 1996 when it enacted legislation which effectively bars most immigrants from obtaining lawful permanent residence if they have entered the United States illegally in the past. These bars now prevent most undocumented spouses, children, parents, and siblings of US citizens from obtaining legal status through their family members. As I often tell my clients, “G-d forgives, but unfortunately not the United States.”

Mixed status families live everyday in Trump’s America with the threat that their families will be broken.  Spouses, parents, children, and siblings of U.S. citizens and permanent residents live in constant fear that they will be deported and separated from their families after 10, 20, 30, or even more years in the United States.  Last January, two of my Uber drivers in Mexico City had been deported just months before.  One was separated from his wife and children who remained in California.  The other brought his U.S. citizen wife and his children to Mexico, but his U.S. citizen children were having so much difficulty adjusting to the Mexican school system and the pollution of Mexico City that he anticipated his family would soon be returning to the United States without him.  For many immigrants in deportation proceedings, the last hope for remaining in the United States with their families is with an Immigration Judge who can grant permanent residence to a limited number of deportable aliens who can demonstrate that their U.S. citizen or permanent resident spouses, children, or parents will suffer, and I quote the law, “exceptional and extremely unusual hardship” if they are deported from the United States.  Imagine the challenges we as lawyers face in presenting evidence meeting this difficult legal standard and making each client’s hardships “exceptional” and “extremely unusual.”

Be aware that these restrictive immigration laws on legal immigration were enacted at the very same time that we adopted policies and practices that encouraged millions of Mexicans and Central Americans to come to in the United States without documents to take jobs at very low wages and very high productivity levels in our factories, our service industries, and our farms and to fulfill the growing needs of prosperous American families for childcare, eldercare, and homecare.  These restrictive immigration laws ensure that most new immigrants from Mexico and Central America can never obtain legal status no matter how much their employment is needed, how productively they work, how law abiding they are, or how many US citizen or permanent resident family members they have.

We must also recognize the major role our country has played in creating the economic and political conditions in Mexico and Central America that have forced millions of people to leave their homes in order to support themselves and their families through employment in the United States.  There are multiple ways we bear responsibility for the economic, political, and social circumstances that created this need to migrate.  Among are them are:  our support  for economic and political elites that has prevented a more equitable distribution of wealth and power, the adoption of free trade agreements that forced people to leave family farms which are no longer economically viable on account of the tariff-free importation of American grains and other farm products; neo-liberal economic policies that kept minimum wages low and marginalized the ability of government to improve education, health care, and other public services; and the increase in violence and corruption resulting from our consumption of illegal drugs, our funding of the so-called “war on drugs,” and the deportation of America’s inner city gang problem.

In the aftermath of the great recession of 2008 and with increased funding of border enforcement, new migration from Mexico has slowed.  However, the growth in the number of Central American refugees at our southern border seeking asylum reflects the worsening conditions in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador where violence, poverty, drug trafficking, and corruption are forcing many to flee no matter how difficult the conditions are in Mexico or along our border.  Our nation’s continued support for the corrupt leaders of Guatemala, where President Jimmy Morales last month expelled the United Nations mission charged with fighting corruption, and Honduras, where Juan Orlando Hernandez won his reelection in 2017 by fraud, is emblematic of the major role we continue to play in creating the political, economic, and social conditions that force Central Americans to seek safety and employment in Mexico and the United States.

My four trips to Central America and Mexico last year opened my eyes to enormity of the challenges facing the people of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.  One out of every five Salvadorans resides in the United States.  One third of the households in El Salvador depend on remittances from family members in the United States.  The economic situation is similar in Guatemala and Honduras. Intense poverty is visible in both the countryside and the cities.  Remittances from workers in the United States are the number one source of foreign income in each Central American country I visited as well as in Mexico where remittances exceed Mexico’s revenue from both oil exportation and tourism.  Deportations from the United States and the threatened end of DACA and TPS threaten every segment of society on account of the dependence on remittances.  In the countryside the level of poverty depends on the percentage of people who have been able to find jobs in the United States.  The cost of paying smugglers for the growing number of people who are being returned from Mexico or the U.S. without ever finding employment to earn the money to pay the smugglers off, burdens many families in Central America with high levels of debt.  Violence resulting from drug trafficking to the U.S. and the growth of gangs is visible on the streets of each city.  Private security is present everywhere.  Many basic government services, like postal service, health care, and transportation, are collapsing.  Having seen these conditions in Central America, I understand more fully why young immigrants continue to risk their lives to get to the United States in the hope of finding employment and a means to support their families.

Trump and his Republican Party’s attacks on refugees impact more than Central Americans.  This fiscal year the Trump Administration reduced the number of allowable refugee admissions to a historic low of 30,000.  We have almost completely shut the door to refugees from war-torn Syria and Yemen.  The Muslim Ban is succeeding in separating Muslim families.  Imagine the frustration of my U.S. citizen Muslim clients, many of whom are physicians, professors, and engineers, who can no longer bring their spouses, their parents, their children, or their siblings to the United States or even arrange for them to visit.

Our public debate over our failed immigration laws and policies is one of our most dishonest.  Instead, we need to be open and clear about why we have failed to enact comprehensive immigration reform to enable families with undocumented members to stay together legally in the United States and what lies behind the politics of hate that drives the anti-immigrant enforcement policies and campaign rhetoric of Trump and the Republican Party.  No credible economist doubts the need for immigrant workers in most segments of our economy.  The real causes behind our failure to enact progressive immigration reform are the impact the Republican Party fears the legalization of  the 11 million undocumented members of our society will have on the electability of Republicans if legalization includes a pathway to citizenship and voting rights, and the apprehension of Republican leaders that they will lose the vote of a majority of white Americans unless they continue to appeal to their racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia.

Given our own experience with nativism, xenophobia, and white supremacy, we as American Jews must rededicate ourselves to the defense of immigrants within our country and refugees at our borders.  We must remember that it was the enactment of the national origin quotas on Eastern Hemisphere immigration by a Republican controlled Congress in the aftermath of World War I that prevented millions of European Jews from finding safety in the United States before and during the Holocaust.  We must not risk our future as a people or our historic commitment as a nation that welcomes immigrants and refugees by allowing the anti-immigrant forces within our society to win the war we are in for rights of immigrants and refugees.

I used to wonder why the Torah instructs us at least 36 times to defend the rights of the strangers among us and to treat equally citizen and non-citizens.  During these first two years of the Trump Administration, I have concluded that the wisdom of our foreparents was that they understood that one of the most important measures of justice in a society is how immigrants are treated and that a society which mistreats immigrants is ultimately a society in which the well-being of all is in danger.

I hope my words tonight will encourage each of you to strengthen your commitment to the defense of immigrants and refugees.  Please volunteer with immigrants rights organizations, donate to organizations like the ACLU, the National Immigrant Justice Center, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, and other organizations committed to the defense of immigrant and refugee rights, and support pro-immigrant and pro-refugee candidates for public office in 2020.  We are in the fight for the future of our country, a fight we must not lose.