The Latest Buzzword: Immigration

Cross-posted from the RAC blog.

Last week’s papers ran headlines such as “5 Republicans who Matter on Immigration,” “Romney Campaign Manager Says He Regrets Immigration Stance,” and “George W. Bush Renews Call for Immigration Reform.” As you may have noticed, immigration increasingly has been in the news in the wake of the November election, with both parties seeming to agree that the system needs to be reformed, as is the consensus among the general public. But what does “immigration reform” mean? What’s wrong with the current system? And why should Jews care?

HIAS—the international migration agency of the organized Jewish community—has been involved in this policy discussion for decades. You might have heard of HIAS’ historic role in rescuing and resettling Jews fleeing repressive societies. But what you might not know is that today in Washington, D.C. we work to advance laws and policies that protect those who seek safety in the U.S. based on persecution or fear of persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion. HIAS also advocates for immigration and refugee laws that are humane, enhance national security and reflect our Jewish values of welcoming the stranger. Along with our Jewish and interfaith partners, as well as other immigration and refugee advocates, HIAS has long pushed reforms to the current system that are guided by the rule of law, national interest, fairness and compassion.

Unfortunately, we have our work cut out for us—the current immigration system is ineffective and outdated. Backlogs have separated families for years, and an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently live in the U.S. without legal status, which makes them vulnerable to harassment and exploitation and fearful of being arrested. Furthermore, there are not enough legal channels for employers who want to hire immigrant workers, particularly for lower skilled jobs.

HIAS is a strong advocate for reforms to the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, a longstanding public-private partnership between the U.S. government and non-governmental organizations that provides initial reception and placement services to arriving refugees. As one of the ten agencies that works directly with the U.S. government to resettle refugees, HIAS is dedicated to ensuring that any discussion about reforms to our country’s broken immigration system will also include crucial and overdue improvements to the Refugee Program, such as those proposed in the Refugee Protection Act of 2011.

For HIAS, one of the main priorities for U.S. immigration legislation is eliminating the one-year filing deadline for asylum applications. This provision has prevented many asylum seekers with a well-founded fear of persecution from receiving protection in the U.S. In fact, it is estimated that one out of every five asylum cases is denied because the individual did not apply within this one year time frame. Another priority is to protect refugees, asylees, and asylum seekers who have been mistakenly labeled as terrorists due to the unduly broad definition of “terrorist activity” in current immigration law. Thousands of individuals’ cases have been put on “hold” with no ability to prove their non-terrorist status—they continue to face endless delays and even the possibility of being deported. Many have been needlessly separated from their spouses and children for many years and have little hope of reuniting with their families in safety under the current law. Policy changes to address these issues, if enacted, would have a huge impact on the lives of thousands of refugees and asylum seekers who seek safety and freedom within our country’s borders.

As a Jewish-American organization, HIAS is acutely concerned both with the security of our country and with the viability of the Refugee Program. We honor the sentiment of Jewish-American poet and HIAS volunteer, Emma Lazarus, who wrote “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” We believe our work is an expression of the values expressed in the Torah, which mandates “when a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

You might know some individuals who have been affected by broken immigration and refugee policies—they are our neighbors, classmates, colleagues, community members, and friends. Drawing from our historical context, as well as our scripture and values, we must speak out as a Jewish community to advocate for just and compassionate asylum and refugee policies, and to urge the government to devote sufficient resources to successfully fulfill the essential undertaking of protecting the persecuted.

At this crucial time—when we seem to have the momentum and opportunity to reform our country’s immigration system—we urge you to join HIAS in our advocacy efforts. You can host a film screening, a speaker event, or a Shabbat program to learn about international migration issues. Or you can coordinate an in-district lobby visit with your elected officials to discuss stories of people who have been impacted by the dysfunctional immigration system or resettled through the U.S. Refugee Program. There also are countless ways to interact with local immigrants in your community to gain a better understanding of their experiences and help them integrate into society—for instance, you could set up an ongoing service project to help aspiring Americans who are studying for their citizenship exams, join an immigrant detention visitation program, or coordinate a donation drive for recently resettled refugees arriving in your community. Contact advocacy@hias.org or visit www.hias.org to get involved.

Liza Lieberman is the Associate Director of U.S. Policy and Advocacy for HIAS in Washington, DC, where she works to advance the organization’s refugee and immigration protection agenda by educating policy makers on issues concerning immigrants and refugees and engaging Jewish communities in HIAS’ work through grassroots advocacy .

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