Friday, June 29, 2018

Is It Just Like the Holocaust?

You may have seen an article in the current issue of the Washington Jewish Week asking “Is It Just Like the Holocaust?” While the entire organized Jewish community has condemned the policy of separating children and parents at the border, a debate has now broken out over whether comparisons to the Holocaust are accurate or not.

            When I say the “entire organized Jewish community”, it’s worth bearing in mind how unprecedented this is. Obviously individual Jews may have different opinions, but 350 national and local organizations issued a statement saying that “our own people’s history as “strangers” reminds us of the many struggles faced by immigrants today and compels our commitment to an immigration system in this country that is compassionate and just.” Our local JCRC and the Washington Board of Rabbis issued a similar statement and even the ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel called for the policy to be rescinded and for families to be immediately reunited. For a broader view of the organized community’s perspective on immigration, take a look at the JCRC’s comprehensive policy adopted last year. (Full disclosure: I am a member of the JCRC board representing the Conservative congregations and rabbinate of the greater Washington area.)

            On a certain level my main issue with Holocaust comparisons to the current situation is that they are unhelpful if they divert our attention. While the policy of deliberately separating families has at least on paper been reversed, there are still hundreds if not thousands of children who have been separated from their parents and many families may never be reunited. As Federal Judge Dana Sabraw wrote in his ruling earlier this week ordering the Federal government to reunite children and parents as quickly as possible, "The practice of separating these families was implemented without any effective system or procedure for (1) tracking the children after they were separated from their parents, (2) enabling communication between the parents and their children after separation, and (3) reuniting the parents and children after the parents are returned to immigration custody following completion of their criminal sentence. This is a startling reality," the judge wrote. "The government readily keeps track of personal property of detainees in criminal and immigration proceedings. Money, important documents, and automobiles, to name a few, are routinely catalogued, stored, tracked and produced upon a detainees' release, at all levels—state and federal, citizen and alien. Yet, the government has no system in place to keep track of, provide effective communication with, and promptly produce alien children. The unfortunate reality is that under the present system migrant children are not accounted for with the same efficiency and accuracy as property. Certainly, that cannot satisfy the requirements of due process."

            No, it is not “just like” the Holocaust in the sense that there are no death camps or gas chambers. But many Holocaust survivors who were hidden as children or survived the Kindertransport, and their children and grandchildren, do see parallels in the trauma that separation of children from parents can cause, as well as the dehumanizing language (“infest, animals”) and scapegoating being used.

            In January 1993 I was part of a group of ten rabbis who spent a week in Haiti. We went there because while he was running for President, Bill Clinton criticized the first Bush Administration’s policy of returning Haitian “boat people” to Haiti, but then announced after winning the election that he would keep it in place.
            There were ten of us in that group and most of us didn’t know each other before we met at JFK airport. Our first night in Haiti we met at our hotel with some of the Catholic clergy who were our hosts, and they asked us to go around the room, introduce ourselves and tell why we had come. All ten of us cited precisely the same reason: the story of the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner which crossed the Atlantic in 1939 with 908 Jewish refugees. The ship docked first in Cuba, where the Jews were denied entry; they then came to New York, were denied entry once again, then sailed to Canada, which also refused to allow them in. The St. Louis went back to Germany and most of its passengers died in the concentration camps. Seeing refugees fleeing persecution and being sent back by the United States to possible death was not something we as Jews could sit by and watch. So we came to Haiti to see what could be done.

“Never Again” is the rallying cry of our generation. We remember the suffering and murder of our people and we vow “Never Again.” But what exactly does “Never Again” mean? Is our mandate as Jews simply to make sure that what happened to us once will never happen to us again? Or is it to make sure that what happened to us, never happens to anyone ever again?

Jews are a people of memory. We are commanded to remember Shabbat; we are commanded to remember what Amalek did to us when we left Egypt, attacking the weak and the stragglers; and 36 times in the Torah, we are commanded not to mistreat the stranger, because we are to remember that we were strangers in Egypt. The Torah is quite clear. The purpose of memory is not simply to enable us to better look out for ourselves. It is to give us guidance in how we are to treat others as well. Otherwise, the commandment not to mistreat a stranger is meaningless.

Something need not be “just like the Holocaust” for me to know that it is unjust. As long as children remain separated from their parents, the Jewish community will continue to raise its voice. As Hillel said: “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the entire Torah, all the rest is commentary.”

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Facts and Fictions about Immigration

The late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is famously quoted as saying that while everyone is entitled to their own opinions, they are not entitled to their own facts.

There is a lot of misinformation floating around discussions of the Trump administration’s policy of removing children from their parents and about immigration generally. Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, let alone an immigration lawyer. But I did study basic international law (at Georgetown) and the history of immigration (in graduate school) and while a rabbi in York, Pa. from 1997 - 2001 I spent a lot of time visiting people being detained by the then-INS and working with and sometimes translating for immigration lawyers. I believe that I have a pretty decent handle on the facts and legalities but will be happy to correct anything I write which is demonstrated to be incorrect.

On the matter of children being held separately from their parents, I have seen people say or write things along the lines of “that’s what happens when you break the law, and crossing into the US illegally is breaking the law.” However, the family separation is not only happening to people apprehended in the act of or shortly after crossing illegally.  It’s also happening to those who present themselves for asylum.

It is an established right under US and international law to show up at a legal port of entry and apply for asylum. Once you do that, you are legally entitled to remain in the country and be given an asylum hearing before an immigration judge. Since some asylum claims are false or unfounded, the government is within its rights to detain you in order to make sure you show up for your hearing and don’t just blend into the population and disappear. But this detention is not supposed to be a punishment; it’s merely meant to make sure you show up for your hearing and then leave if your claim of asylum is denied.

Attorney General Sessions and other administration officials don’t like this law and are seeking to deter people from coming here and seeking asylum, and they see the policy of separating children from their parents as a deterrent. He has acknowledged this. The president has also acknowledged that he is using these children as a bargaining chip to force congressional authorization to build his wall.

Asylum seekers have done nothing wrong. They are complying with the law. Our government is taking away their children to prevent them from doing something it doesn’t like but which is completely legal.

While the intent of this policy is to deter people from seeking asylum, the result may be the opposite of that intended. If an asylum seeker comes here and presents herself for asylum, she will have her kids taken away and only have them returned if she agrees to be deported. (By the way, the wait for an asylum hearing is over a year.) On the other hand, if she simply tries to sneak over the border, she might get caught, in which case she will either have her kids taken away or be deported -- same result as if she followed the law. But if she is successful, as some are, she will have her kids with her and try to blend into the population along with 11 million or so other undocumented immigrants. We may already be seeing this as illegal border crossings are once again on the rise after years of decline, despite the new “zero tolerance” policy.

I often see people ask in all innocence, “why don’t they just come here legally?” In the case of those seeking asylum who are having their kids taken away, the fact of the matter is that they have.

But obviously there are lots of people who do come here illegally and I often see people say things along the lines of “my family came here legally, they should too.”

Since the plurality of my friends and acquaintances are American Jews whose ancestors came here during the great wave of immigration from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1924, yes, your family probably came here legally. But with some caveats. First of all, there were basically no immigration laws at that time. No visas, no quotas. At least if you were White, you showed up at Ellis Island and if you were basically healthy you were admitted to this country.

Beyond that, there’s a good chance that someone in your family broke some laws in the process of immigrating here. The last of my immigrant relatives died in 1999 before video cameras and so on were common and I deeply regret the fact that I didn’t get some of the discussion that I had with them on video. But I distinctly remember my immigrant relatives telling stories of bribing guards to let them cross borders, of falsifying papers and changing names to keep families together. Our family legend is that “Arian” was not the original surname at all and was chosen to help an ancestor evade conscription by the Tsar’s army. Most of us have similar stories and we don’t try to hide them, indeed we are proud of them because it was a moral imperative to escape persecution and get here in any way possible. True then, true now.

Finally, I see people writing that illegal immigrants are stealing our jobs and/or living off welfare. Let’s examine these claims a bit. First of all, undocumented people are not eligible for most social welfare programs. They almost certainly aren’t living off welfare. Yes, their kids are in school and so on but remember that if you are born here, you are an American regardless of whether or not your parents are here legally.

Second, are they really “stealing jobs”? Whose jobs, what jobs? The unemployment rate is 3.8% and employers are having a hard time filling the jobs they have available. On the Eastern Shore of Maryland, owners of crab canning factories are up in arms because the administration has cut the visas they use for their workforce by 40 percent and they can’t get the employees they need. I’ll repeat something I’ve been saying for years: if you are morally opposed to benefiting in any way from undocumented workers, get ready to cut your own lawn, do your own home repairs and remodeling, and don’t eat in restaurants or stay in hotels.

Immigration is a complicated and contentious issue and to my mind, some politicians of both parties perceive a benefit in continuing to exploit the issue for political gain. There have been some genuinely bipartisan attempts to fix the system and I hope those continue, but for now, I think that it’s important that when we debate and discuss we at least have the same basic facts in front of us.