With Congress currently on an Independence Day recess, attempts to overhaul this country’s immigration policy remains in limbo despite the U.S. Senate passage of a bipartisan bill that creates a path to citizenship while greatly increasing the number of border patrol agents.
The pathway to citizenship voted on by the Senate would require the undocumented to go through background checks, learn English and pay taxes and a penalty before getting into the line for citizenship behind those who arrived legally.
Abby Levine, director of the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable, was in the Senate chambers when the 68 to 32 vote was cast in favor of immigration reform. All four of Maryland and Virginia’s senators, all Democrats, voted in favor.
“It was very exciting to see 68 senators stand up at their desks and vote aye,” she said.
Her group, as well as many other Jewish organizations, spent time convincing their members to get involved in the struggle and lobbying members of Congress on immigration reform.
The bill’s fate now rests in the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives, which is working on carving out its own bill that is expected to be tough on enforcement and less promising on citizenship.
No date has been set for the House to vote on immigration reform.
The day before the Senate’s June 27 vote, there was an interfaith march and rally in D.C. in which Bend the Arc-A Jewish Partnership for Justice’s Rabbi Jason Kimelman-Block, senior director of leadership initiatives and rabbi-in-residence, spoke and blew the shofar.
Hearing the sound of the shofar, he hoped, would be “a call to examine our deeds, all the ways that we have contributed to the suffering of others, whether they be sins of commission or sins of omission,” he said.
“We call on the leadership of the House of Representatives to abandon the delay tactics of piecemeal approaches to immigration reform. This is the opportunity to stand on the side of families, the side of humanity and the side of what’s right,” he said in his speech.
The Senate’s version “is not a perfect bill. It was certainly a compromise,” Levine said. She expressed optimism that the House will follow suit, noting that the momentum in this country supports immigration reform.
“For decades, we have not had this kind of momentum,” she said.
She said she was “taken aback” when she heard that the bill included an additional 20,000 border patrol agents, noting that “doesn’t represent the kind of values” those in the Jewish justice field had hoped for.
Benjamin Suarato, communications manager at Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said his group spoke with 125 Jewish Community Relations Council representatives throughout the country, in its efforts to help pass immigration reform.
He called what the Senate passed “not perfect” but he still spoke in positive terms.
Immigration reform affects America’s national security, economics and the country’s morals, he said.
Rabbi Steve Gutow, JCPA president, issued a statement following the Senate’s vote that called America “an Immigration Nation.”
“Our national commitment to immigration has been critical to our national prosperity: powering innovation, creativity and growth. However, over the past decades, our system has become tarnished with an outmoded visa system, long waiting lines, harsh detention and deportation policies, and millions of immigrants without a lawful status,” he noted.
Jewish groups actively working for immigration reform spent little time celebrating the Senate’s vote before working to convince House members to enact similar legislation.
The Anti-Defamation League urged the House of Representatives to act swiftly.
“We urge the House to follow the Senate’s lead and pass an immigration reform bill that rejects the failed enforcement-only approach and honors our values as a nation of immigrants,” the ADL said in a statement from Barry Curtiss-Lusher, national chair, and Abraham Foxman, national director.
The National Jewish Democratic Council also applauded the Senate’s work while calling on the House to step up to the plate.
“Now it is up to the House of Representatives to take immediate action on this important issue,” NJDC chair Mark Stanley wrote in an email to Washington Jewish Week.
“American Jews, committed to social justice and full equality for all, want immigration reform to move forward,” said Alan van Capelle, Bend the Arc CEO.
“It’s the right thing to do for our economy and for our nation as a whole. And it’s important to millions of American Jews who have grown up with a defining immigration story of their own,” he said.
Bend the Arc submitted congressional testimony and organized meetings with various Senators in its effort to help pass immigration reform.
The aim of Jewish activists is to create an immigration system that includes a pathway to citizenship, legal ways to deal with the future flow of immigrants and ends the separation of families due to deportation. They also are striving for protection of workers.
Provisions in earlier versions of the bill aimed at preventing abuse of immigrant workers included regulatory changes that religious groups feared would make onerous the hiring of temporary overseas workers.
Jewish groups bring in summer camp counselors, Israeli emissaries and other workers through the J-1 visa program.
The Reform movement and JCPA, the umbrella body for public policy groups, joined other faith-based groups in lobbying senators to modify the proposed changes so they would not affect hiring through J-1.
Also included was language that makes permanent the Lautenberg Amendment, the law first passed in 1989 and initiated by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) that loosens tough refugee status standards for designated persecuted religious minorities.
As it stands, the law must be renewed with each annual budget; the language in the Senate bill would grant the president discretion to apply it on an as-needed basis.
The law helped facilitate the exit of hundreds of thousands Soviet and Iranian Jews, among other minorities. HIAS, which led the bid to make Lautenberg’s language permanent, said it was a fitting tribute to the senator, who died in June.
“If enacted into law, this bill would preserve Senator Lautenberg’s legacy of protecting persecuted religious minorities while creating new opportunities for other persecuted groups — with an emphasis on those seeking religious freedom — to receive protection,” HIAS said in a statement.
Some of the other Jewish groups working for immigration reform include AJC, B’nai B’rith International and the National Council of Jewish Women.
JTA contributed to this article