Tickets On Sale Now
view counter
How Should We Treat Undocumented Workers?
Wed, 07/27/2011 - 20:00
Jewish Week Online Columnist
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz

How should the American people treat a population which only has a marginal economic impact yet still manages to stimulate job growth and consumption in the country? The presumed answer is sadly far from the reality of how America behaves towards “illegal immigrants.”

They often work 10 to 16 hours a day for minimal if not nominal pay without legal protection, risking imprisonment and deportation, and have no footholds which could lead to a more productive life. Constantly being treated as the “other” has significant social implications for these workers often leading to deep alienation.

Jews can empathize with those who suffer from governmental and societal discrimination. Throughout history, Jews were consistently considered strangers and outsiders, whether from Egypt, Spain, or the Former Soviet Union, and we have on an international scale lived lives in fear due to geo-political and socio-economic discrimination.

Currently, many Jews mistakenly perceive undocumented workers in the United States to be an alien, (“the other”) as if our own immigration status were a relic of the distant past. In fact, thousands of illegal Jewish immigrants —from Israel, Latin America, and the Former Soviet Union — live in America today at risk without documentation as well. If not for our historic past, then for our religious teachings we must address the grave injustice and mistreatment of undocumented workers in America. The Torah teaches, “You shall have one law for the stranger and the citizens alike” (Leviticus 24:22). We may not treat the citizen and the stranger differently according to Jewish law.

Judaism places the highest emphasis on the freedom and dignity of the human. The strictness of national borders that places nationalism over individualism is a religiously flawed stance. The Rabbis taught that “God gathered the dust (of the first human) from the four corners of the world. Why from the four corners of the earth? So that if one comes from the east to the west and arrives at the end of his life as he near departing from the world, it will not be said to him, ‘This land is not the dust of your body, it's of mine. Go back to where you were created.’ Rather, every place that a person walks, from there he was created and from there he will return.” The Torah stresses that nationality is not a part of human essence and thus we can never allow for discrimination.

The dawn of globalization has enabled the possibility for a free flow of money, products, and labor. However, while we continue to knock down barriers for the flow of money and products, we are erecting higher walls preventing the most underprivileged people from migrating naturally.

Non-Jews and Jews alike should reverse the cruel punitive practices in the U.S. because the undocumented population has a marginal economic impact, and in fact stimulates job growth and consumption. Currently about 11 million people work in the U.S. illegally, and their net economic impact on Americans is relatively small. The most conservative estimates show that undocumented workers only contribute around .03 percent of U.S. gross domestic product. This is approximately equivalent to the net cost of government services given to this immigrant population. While this overall impact is small, many sectors in the American economy, such as construction and agriculture, would suffer greatly without the labor of undocumented workers.

Second, even the Chamber of Commerce is in support of those “already contributing to our economy” becoming legalized. A 2010 report demonstrated that across US industries, the net effect of immigration has actually created more jobs for American citizens, including low-skilled workers. Contrary to public perception, immigrants do not take jobs away from American laborers; rather, they take jobs that would otherwise be sent abroad.

Finally, studies show not only that these workers tend to increase productivity, but that they also naturally support the local economy as consumers.

Therefore, the result is that undocumented workers actually support the American economy as productive members of society, and yet suffer at the hands of that same society. The American Jewish community must be at the forefront to resolve this inequality. Some of the smallest adjustments can ensure the largest impact. For instance, all workers, including those undocumented, must receive a living wage and this will strengthen the overall economy through a decrease in unemployment. Raising wages and benefits, perhaps counter intuitively, decreases unemployment because it has been shown that those who are happier at their work stay longer and are more productive.

For the welfare of this country, write to your representatives in government to begin supporting a sector of America’s workforce and to end the oppression of undocumented workers.

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Senior Jewish Educator at UCLA Hillel and a 5th year PhD candidate at Columbia University in Moral Psychology & Epistemology. To read more Street Torah, click here.

Our Newsletters, Your Inbox


The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Comment Guidelines

The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.


Excellent analysis, Reb Shmuly!

Kol hakavod!

I hope your message will be widely read and heeded.

I know what Rabbi Yanklowitz is talking about. I am a Jew from Latin America and I came to this country as a so-called "illegal alien" (now I have been a legal resident for more that 20 years and I'm close to become a Citizen). I completely agree with him and I'm trying to follow his advice. I'm working as a volunteer for organizations trying to protect the new immigrants. No human being is illegal!

Is an undocumented immigrant the same as calling a corner drug dealer an "unlicensed pharmacist"?
My Jewish grandparents came to this country legally through Ellis Island during the early 1900's. They studied hard and were proud to become American citizens. They could read english and speak the language. Let's get to the point. I am 100% for legal immigration. Illegally entering this country makes one a criminal illegal alien and they should be jailed. Sending them back simply puts them in the revolving door of return, come back, return, come back. Enter this country legally...Good!. Enter illegally, go directly to jail, do not collect welfare, and do not burden the medical system. If you are for illegal aliens, put your money where your mouth is. Let them move in with your family. You cover their medical expenses (not the taxpayers) and YOU look after their welfare. My guess is that you are saying, "Be kind, let them in (though not in my neighborhood).

This has to be one of the most self serving, agenda driven articles I have had the disappointment to read. Being 'PC' is not always an act of respect for anybody or anything, it does however add to the negative perceptions by those who believe that some ethnic groups are phony if not at least self hating.

Logically, Rabbi Yanklowitz' position is also an argument for unlimited uncontrolled illegel -oops,sorry, "undocumented"- overrunning of Israel's borders by the needy "strangers" who surround them.

hi. I understand what you are stating. I Personally have lost work due to people here illegally . I have felt the impact . I do not blame people coming here for a better life. I do believe they need to be here legally. Many do not bother to try, or try to become a part of our culture. I'm not saying , lose the great heritage they come from, but they are choosing to come here, respect our culture too.
Not having any incentive to learn english, we spend millions in " press one" type operations. The PC term does not remove the fact, they are not here legally.
Ignoring our laws with " cutsy" terms is Destroying common sense.
PC is not honest speech. PC has been highjacked , it is now Politcally Corrupt. Political Censorship. Picking and choosing laws to follow, that makes zero logical sense. I'm not advocating being uncaring. I do believe support people here illegally , over taking care of our Citizens is insane. We so many citizens in need of help. We need to fund that first and foremost. Our citizens now take a back seat to people here illegally . That is insane. Vets, senior citizens .... They need our help FIRST. Thank you. Shabbat Shalom

This argument is built the way I'd build the argument that prostitution makes marriages healthier, and we should ensure that prostitutes get better wages so that marriages will be even more healthy.

Based on 0bama's appearance before the race based La Raza the other day it seemed that he wants to be their "Lord Balfour".


"Some of the smallest adjustments can ensure the largest impact. For instance, all workers, including those undocumented, must receive a living wage..."

The euphemisms, "living wage" and "undocumented" are 'red' flags found in other writings especially those of the Catholic Church. This writers disregard for the law is disturbing. If you're not supposed to be here you have to leave. It really is that simple.