Notwithstanding the absence of a major wave of Jewish immigration today, the country's immigration policies remain central to the Jewish community, the president and CEO of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society told a roomful of young Jewish and Muslim leaders last week.
Hundreds of thousands of foreign-born Jews are no longer migrating to the United States, as they did from the early 1880s to the early ‘20s and, again, in the 1970s and ‘80s, said Gideon Aronoff, who discussed the subject as part of a panel discussion.
But the issue of fixing the country’s immigration system proved powerful enough to bring together the young leaders of two Jewish organizations and three Muslim groups for the Feb. 28 panel discussion. Hosted by the Islamic Cultural Center of New York, a mosque on the Upper East Side, the event focused on building interfaith coalitions for immigration advocacy.
The panelists included Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, and Imam Shamsi Ali, the mosque’s spiritual leader, close friends and colleagues who helped set the tone for the event. Both clerics have long promoted Jewish-Muslim dialogue, and the rabbi’s foundation was one of the event’s sponsors.
But it fell to Aronoff to explain to the 30 or so Muslims in the room why American Jews would remain as concerned as they are by immigration policy when its direct impact on the Jewish community has diminished. In turn, immigration attorney Naveen Bhora helped give the 30 or so Jewish leaders a picture of how the nation’s broken immigration system has hurt members of the Muslim community, thousands of whom have been detained and deported in the past decade.
Aronoff traced the position of American Jews to the “core beliefs” of the Jewish community and to their “central communal interests,” both of which require them to offer kindness to the stranger.
“We must be broadly focused on the stranger in need and not solely on our responsibilities to our Jewish brothers and sisters,” Aronoff said. “Essentially, we understand that we care for the stranger not because he or she is Jewish, but because we are Jewish.”
Discussing the community’s beliefs, Aronoff noted that the Torah instructs Jews no less than 36 times to welcome, love and protect the stranger — a commandment that appears more than any other mitzvah. Jewish history also informs the commitment to help refugees and immigrants, Aronoff said, adding that “Jews are a wandering people” and that “our history is one of movement.”
As for the community’s interests, American Jews share many of the same concerns as other citizens, Aronoff suggested. Every American has a stake in the nation’s economic vitality, cohesion and identity, all of which are advanced when the country’s policies not only welcome newcomers but help integrate them, he said.
But one particular concern for the Jewish community, stemming from its small size, is the need to create allies and build coalitions, Aronoff continued. That, in turn, requires that Jews care about the needs and concerns of their partners. The country’s Jews and Muslims, he said, can and must work together to fight against measures that demonize immigrants, to reverse the hate speech that has dominated the debate and to continue the campaign for comprehensive immigration reform.
Bhora, who came to this country as an infant from Bangladesh, told her audience that the Muslim community received a “wake-up call” after 9/11, when the government began using immigration law to harass and deport Muslim immigrants “under the rubric” of national security.
As Bhora described it, the violations have taken place under the National Security Entry/Exit Registration System (NSEERS), which required all men who had entered the country before September 2002, who had come from a predominantly Muslim country and weren’t citizens, permanent residents or those granted asylum, to register themselves with their local immigration office.
Of the 80,000 people who complied with those instructions, hundreds were detained or deported, Bhora said — the vast majority for violations that had nothing to do with terrorism or criminal activity. And since all those deported were men, she said, their wives and children had to fend for themselves, some of them winding up in homeless shelters.
That part of the NSEERS program, known as call-in registration, lasted only a year, but the program continues to stop certain categories of non-immigrants at ports of entry — primarily on the basis of their nation of origin.
Men from predominantly Muslim countries are routinely stopped for interrogations that can last anywhere from two hours, if they’re lucky, to six hours, if they’re not, said one expert on the subject, Edward Alden, author of “The Closing of the American Border.” Nearly all American-Muslim families have been affected by the system, including Bhora’s. Her husband, a Pakistani-born surgeon who’s been in this country for many years, goes through the same lengthy interrogation each time he leaves or enters the United States, she said.
Like Aronoff, Bhora also discussed the lengthy wait times for foreign nationals applying for permanent visas — at least six years for skilled workers or professionals, all of whom have job offers or backing from American firms, and at least 11 years for the siblings of U.S. citizens. The lengthy wait prompts many highly qualified people to leave the country, while forcing others to overstay their temporary visas.
Last week’s event may signify a trend among the young leaders of Jewish organizations, said Walter Ruby, the discussion’s moderator and the Muslim-Jewish relations program officer at the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. More and more often, he suggested, Jewish young leadership groups are meeting with counterparts from other religious and ethnic communities.
Sponsors of last week’s event included HIAS Young Leaders, the Muslim Public Affairs Council and Generation R, a group of young, Russian-speaking Jews affiliated with the Jewish Community Center in Manhattan. William Dawoodi, a member of the HIAS group, came up with the idea of such a meeting.
In another note of Muslim-Jewish cooperation, Imam Shamsi Ali said the name for a March 6 rally in Times Square — “I Am a Muslim, Too” — was suggested by Rabbi Schneier. The rally, organized by a coalition of interfaith and progressive groups, protested congressional hearings called by Rep. Peter King (R-L.I.), scheduled to start this week, to examine the “radicalization” of American Muslims.
Those facts aside, one observer at last week’s event said he fears the mistrust that has developed between the Muslim community and other Americans.
Robert Kaplan, director of intergroup relations at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said he has no doubt that home-grown terrorism really exists, making some of the mistrust well-founded. But in other cases, he added, the mistrust has no basis and could “hinder communities from working together to enable everyone to share in the American experience.”