Immigration reform: A Jewish imperative

Today’s guest blogger is Avi Smolen, a 2009 graduate of Rutgers University. Last year Avi worked as a Faiths Act … Continued

Today’s guest blogger is Avi Smolen, a 2009 graduate of Rutgers University. Last year Avi worked as a Faiths Act Fellow in Washington DC, where he focused on engaging college students in multi-faith global health activism. He now works in New York as a Goldman Fellow at the American Jewish Committee’s Belfer Center for Pluralism.

Discussions of immigration reform have become divisive in recent years, as the population of undocumented immigrants in the country has increased to nearly 12 million.

Growing up, I thought of myself as American, and did not see much in common with my neighbors who had recently immigrated to the United States. Now I realize that my life has been shaped by immigration. My great-grandmother was sponsored by distant relatives to immigrate to the United States from what is now Odessa, Ukraine. In fact, two of my other great-grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Russia and Hungary, and my maternal great-great-grandmother all emigrated from Poland. Though my great-grandparents migrated legally, the number of available visas was small and the process quite difficult. I can understand why many immigrants today try to work around legal channels when faced with ten-year backlogs in the visa system.

President Obama has said that the immigration system is broken and many groups are working to promote comprehensive immigration reform (CIR). One such organization, the American Jewish Committee, where I work as a Goldman Fellow, is advocating for reform from a Jewish perspective. Jewish history is rife with examples of Jews who have been turned away when they sought refuge, such as the St. Louis, which sailed from Germany to Cuba and then the United States in 1939. After refusal to disembark from both countries, the ship was forced to return to Europe, where nearly half of its passengers perished in the Holocaust.

For my family, immigration to the United States, or the “Goldene Medina” (Golden Land) in Yiddish, was not purely an opportunity for economic success, but a place that was free of the persecution for being Jewish that they had known in their countries of origin. Though the U.S. was not without xenophobia, I am grateful that this country was able and willing to accept my forebears.

The experience of my family is not unique; many American Jews have similar stories of relatives’ immigration in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Because of my personal and communal narrative, I appreciate the need for a modern immigration system that provides refuge for those in need and economic opportunity for those seeking to better their lives. This belief is also supported in Jewish tradition; the Torah repeats 36 times an injunction to care for the “ger” (stranger) among the community, often interpreted today as caring for the immigrant.

History imposes obligations, and AJC stands in support of CIR because the Jewish community understands what it means to be immigrants, but also because it believes that reforming the immigration system will promote economic prosperity and enhance national security. According to the CATO Institute, reform would yield an approximately $180 billion gain annually for U.S. households. CIR would also improve national security by upgrading border security, and creating incentives for legal immigration that would allow law enforcement to focus on criminals, smugglers, and traffickers instead of people trying to unite with their families.

As an American Jew, I feel it is my responsibility to my great-grandparents and to my people that I advocate for a fair and just system of immigration today.

The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core.


  • WmarkW

    No one advocate sending illegal immigrants to be killed. Advocates for reducing their numbers in the US should probably be doing more to advocate for improved economic distribution in Mexico, such as pressuring businesses to use NAFTA to improve conditions there. That was one of the arguments made for it 20 years ago, wasn’t it?

  • robtemery

    Your first problem is you quote Obama who is well known for contradictory statements. But, you missed the issue. I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t want fair and just immigration law. But, comprehensive immigration reform was passed in 1986 and included Amnesty and Border Security, the same proposals on the table today. Not one politician has proposed a solution to border security and implement border security first. NO, its legalize 11-20 million illegals which in addition allows them to bring in their families and then here is this nebulous vague border security. Illegals represent an exploitable closet labor force. I am sick and tired of all you bleeding hearts, my grand parents were French Jews but they entered the country legally. As for the poor innocent people looking for work, I live along the border. Many come across for the free medical, food, housing and cash assistance which in California’s case is 11-22 billion dollars/yr.

  • usapdx

    All nations have borders, even the Vatican . No person has a right to enter another nation against that nations laws. A immagrant is a person from another country that legally enter the new country,followed that country’s laws and became a citzen of the new country is THEN a immagrant of the person’s old country. To all the immagrants in the U.S.A., I hope you have a happy full life in YOUR new country, the U.S.A. for you are a American. To the plus 12,000,000 ILLEGALS in the U.S.A., you have violated our laws from your first step and are NOT immagrants but illegals that are a libility to the American tax payers and also as you take jobs from Americans for scab wages from your illegal employeers. The federal goverment has not properly enforced fedral law on our borders mainly the Mexican border or gone after the illegal employeers and illegal renters as they should. The illegals do not deserve U.S.A. citzenship account of violating U.S.A. laws and you have hijack the 14th amendment for it was written for a person FORCED into the U.S.A., not for someone that entered our country illegally and produces a child. Please read the Dred Scot case. For congress to change our law on immagration to pick up the Latinoi vote is WRONG for our law on immagration works. Thoes that speak out on this POLITICAL issue of the plus 12,000,000 illegals and turn around not fileing income with the I.R.S., but claiming TAX EXAMPT have violated the TAX EXAMPT rules. Total freedom of speech in the U.S.A. requires the fileing of income to the I.R.S. for a person or group.It strange that the congress has not repel the tax exampt law with many the tax exampt claimers tell our goverment what to do on political matters as well as the people. Illegals are not immagrants. The American people will speak out to congress in November for we are a goverment of the people, by the people and for the people.

  • abrahamhab1

    “Because of my personal and communal narrative, I appreciate the need for a modern immigration system that provides refuge for those in need and economic opportunity for those seeking to better their lives. This belief is also supported in Jewish tradition; the Torah repeats 36 times an injunction to care for the “ger” (stranger) among the community, often interpreted today as caring for the immigrant.”True! Israel cares for immigrants from all corners of the world provided they belong to certain religion. Yet the indigenous population is rotting in refugee camps all around Israel and could not as much visit what is left of their homes, let alone reside there. You are preaching to the wrong crowd.

  • areyousaying

    As an American Jew, do you feel it is your responsibility to your great-grandparents and to your people to advocate for a fair and just system of immigration today in Israel, or do you agree that a theocratic dictatorial rabbinate should determine who among your converts should be deemed a Jewish citizen or not?

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