Immigration Reform has been a hot issue, these past few months. A Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill has recently passed through the Senate, and the house is now debating what, if any, bill it might pass. What does Judaism have to offer this conversation?
Clearly, there isn't a single "correct" Jewish position on Immigration Reform. That's especially true when we're talking about specific policies or legislation. Judaism doesn't tell us precisely how long is too long for a path to citizenship to take. Judaism has little if anything to offer in helping us decide what percentage, precisely, of our money should we be spending on border security, as opposed to other aspects of Immigration policy.
But, Judaism does have quite a bit to say about values — which values should be important to us, and which values should undergird our society.
One of the values integral to Judaism is Hachnasot Orchim—welcoming the stranger. Welcoming the stranger has always been part of Judaism. In the Book of Genesis, we hear of Abraham, the first Jew, who was sitting in the entrance of his tent, when three strangers passed by. He immediately invited them in, and treated them like royalty — preparing a meal for them himself, not even letting his servants do it for him. That was probably fairly common and expected — we still see echoes of this kind of behavior in that part of the world. Our people inherited this tradition, and we built it into our theology.
You see, there is a natural, human tendency to favor those to whom we are the closest. We tend to take care of our own, and to be wary or afraid of "the other." The mitzvah of welcoming the stranger is, in part, a counterbalance to this reflex. It reminds us that this person, whom I do not know is, among other things, a human being. And that means that they were created in the image of God. The moment I encounter him or her, I have an obligation to him or her. There is no one — not a single, solitary person — from whom I can completely turn away, and to whom I have no obligation.
These people — these immigrants — who are not, at least not yet, part of our nation are still people. And we have an obligation towards them. We have to welcome them.
We can't welcome everyone equally, of course. No one is suggesting that we don't have any Immigration policy — that we open our borders and make everyone and anyone a citizen. But, our starting place has to be one of care and welcoming. We have to work to figure out how we can bring the greatest number of people possible into our country, and into our lives, rather than starting from a place of rejection and isolationism.
It would be incredibly ironic for us, as Jews, to be less than welcoming when it comes to immigration policy. Because, we've often been the victim of it. We've been the victims of restrictions on our own migrations for centuries. We’ve fled persecution and been told, time and again, "you're not welcome here." Even when others were trying to wipe our people off the map, we've been told to go somewhere else. Just not here.
And, in less dramatic times, we still had to leave one home to seek a better life elsewhere. Very few of us in the Jewish community have an American heritage which goes back more than a few generations. We are a people of immigrants in a nation of immigrants. It is our repeated memory of being a stranger in a strange land which is supposed to drive our moral dedication to helping others to never feel like strangers themselves. Or, as it says in Leviticus (19:33-34), "When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt."
Because we were strangers, we know how it feels. And so, we are commanded to help other strangers. We have an obligation to immigrants not in spite of the fact that they are strangers, but precisely because of it.
We also have to remember that many immigrants, whether legal or illegal, are among the most vulnerable in our society. And that's another, perhaps even greater reason that we are obligated to help them. We are told over and over that we are obligated to protect the weak — the Bible commands us to protect the widow and the orphan, because those categories were the weakest, and the most vulnerable, in ancient society.
By contrast, "They’re not my problem" appears exactly never in our text.
It's so easy to get caught up in the specifics of policy, discussions about "who should get in first" and rhetoric about amnesty and such that we can forget a very basic, fundamental fact: we're talking about people here. Were talking about people — not "illegals," but people — who are suffering. People who, perhaps because they came here illegally, are not afforded, or do not know about, the legal protections to which they are entitled. They are exploited and abused, with startling regularity and severity. Even if we hold them accountable for entering this country illegally, it should still shock our moral centers that human beings are treated in this way. Workers are abused physically, and are threatened with deportation should they utter any protest, or seek help. Children are left without their parents, often put in dubious foster care, because their parents were deported, while they weren't. Husbands and wives are kept apart for years and years because the one who came here, legally or not, doesn't have the right, or perhaps just the resources, to bring their loved one over. Young women are forced into slavery and the sex trade, because as far as society is concerned, they don’t even exist. It’s an abomination.
As I said, the policy issues are deeply, deeply complicated. And, no one policy, or set of policies, is going to solve all these problems. But, that simply doesn't give us the right to lose our sense of empathy for people who are suffering. The fact that we can't make the problem go away in no way diminishes our responsibility to make it better. We have to remember that behind every story, behind every argument, behind every policy debate live real people with real lives. And they’re in real pain.
That, more than anything else, drives my support of Immigration Reform. It is a belief that, flawed, imperfect and incomplete as it will inevitably be, it is a step in the direction of justice, and of mercy. It is a step in the direction of forging a society which more closely holds to the ideals and values set out in our tradition.
Your conscience will tell you how to act, when it comes to laws and policies. Judaism can’t tell you, and neither can I, which candidate to support, or which bill to protest. but, I urge you to do something. Call your Senator, or call your representative. Urge them to act. Urge them to act in a way which will make our country, and our society, a place which welcomes the stranger, protects the weak, and strives to be a shining example of our greatest ideals.
This is a version of the sermon I gave on Friday, July 19th.