Straight Talk About Jews And Immigration
Tue, 02/02/2010
Special To The Jewish Week

Defying conventional wisdom, a recent public opinion survey reveals an historic shift in American-Jewish opinion on immigration, marking the end of consensus on what seemed an iconic allegiance, absolute and immutable. The ascending trend is support for immigration law enforcement, not illegal immigration. Nostalgia for a mythologized past is being superseded by concern about America’s future.

Conducted by Zogby for the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) and released late December, “Religious Leaders Versus Members: An Examination of Contrasting Views on Immigration” provides irrefutable evidence of the chasm dividing America’s religious leadership and congregants, pulpit and pew of all faiths, on the issue of immigration. Though the divide is narrower among Jews due to fading liberalism and the residual influence of politically correct, moribund communal institutions, it is significant and widening.

The Jewish establishment’s spokespersons can’t ignore the survey entirely, but labor to minimize its importance. The JTA coverage of the poll was reasonably fair, but highlighted the narrowest divide: roughly equal percentages of Jews favor enforcement-only and amnesty. The more subversive findings received less attention. Particularly newsworthy are lopsided ones predictive of strong hostility to amnesty: 60 percent oppose immigration by foreign workers who take jobs from Americans; 60 percent believe government has never made a serious effort to enforce immigration law. Most troubling, JTA buried the finding on “attrition” (utilizing tighter border controls and stricter immigration law enforcement to encourage self-deportation by illegal aliens): 80 percent endorse it.

Others responding to the poll appeared bewildered.  Richard Foltin of the American Jewish Committee observed, “There’s a lot of education to be done in the community” — as if his and other Jewish organizations haven’t been relentlessly propagandizing it for decades.

The Jewish Week’s editorial, “Immigration Reform Now,” published shortly after the survey, barely mentions it. A compilation of platitudes, faulty analogies, and begged questions, it demonizes opponents as demagogic bigots. A simple morality play, it has heroes (American Jewish Committee, HIAS, and Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), sponsor of the House amnesty bill) and villains (miscreants who “scapegoat” immigrants).

Its most misleading analogy equates Jewish immigrants during the “Great Wave” around the turn of the 19th century and first two decades of the 20th with contemporary immigrants, conflating all as “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Jews during the Great Wave fled pogroms, oppression, and discrimination. Consequently, Jews alone migrated in one direction, remained, and fully Americanized. There’s no commonality between the Jewish refugees of that era and today’s economic migrants.

The editorial’s unqualified support for mass immigration, legal or illegal, makes a timeless fetish of a policy whose worth should be measured by the good it does the nation at a given historical moment. It is absurd to argue that the immigration policy good for our grandparents and parents — who migrated to a fundamentally different America, an industrial colossus needing countless unskilled, semi-skilled, and skilled workers and with a largely empty continent to fill — still makes sense in a post-industrial knowledge-based economy with a modern welfare state.

The editorial asserts that what is preventing a desirable solution are cynical, demagogic politicians and right-wing radio hosts “scapegoating immigrants” who “steal American jobs.” The truth is more complicated. Contemporary low-skill immigration (especially illegal immigrants, a large majority of whom don’t have high school diplomas and 30 percent haven’t finished ninth grade) threatens to re-barbarize American capitalism, destroy the social safety net, and create a permanent underclass. Immigration is a zero-sum game in some respects, and low-skill immigration has brutal consequences for the most vulnerable Americans. When advocates of mass immigration demand justice, one must respond, “Justice for whom?”

The damage inflicted on our poorest citizens is a major concern of many of America’s best minds and prestigious institutions. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman opposes low-skill immigration because it harms America’s poor and threatens to destroy the social safety net. The National Academy of Sciences’ study “New Americans: Economic, Demographic and Fiscal Effects of Immigrants” found 44 percent of the decrease in wages for the poorest Americans from 1980–1994 resulted from unfair competition with low-skill illegal aliens. America’s leading immigration economist, George Borjas of Harvard’s Kennedy School, has documented its devastating impact on workforce participation of African-American men. Vilifying opponents doesn’t address these realities.

Ill-considered editorial praise for Gutierrez’s extreme bill is pointless. House Resolution 4321 is extreme because Gutierrez knows there won’t be amnesty legislation in 2010; he’s merely posturing. With the “U-6” unemployment rate at 17.5 percent (which includes those seeking work, those who’ve given up, and those who’ve unwillingly taken part-time jobs), Congress won’t risk the fury of the electorate by creating additional job competition. Speaker Pelosi has promised House Democrats no more controversial legislation in an election year.

Finally, it’s likely a growing majority of American Jews opposes illegal immigration because a confident American identity makes them empathize with fellow Americans first, not immigrants. Jews will forever passionately oppose xenophobia, but American identity has surmounted the immigrant past.

Stephen Steinlight is senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), Washington.

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