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.