How to put Hillel’s words into action on immigration


At D.C.’s “Close the Camps” rally on Tishah B’Av, I heard a child ask his father if migrant kids will no longer be locked up. Even at a young age, he clearly had learned that “what is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”

I couldn’t help but wonder if we adults were remembering the rest of that line from Rabbi Hillel: “the rest is the explanation of this — go and study it!” As important as our values are, it’s not enough to call broadly for our country to stop treating our neighbors inhumanely, it’s also vitally important that we work to understand the concrete actions we can take to accomplish that.

Some Jewish activists have been working tirelessly to learn from people directly impacted by these issues what some detailed policy asks could look like (and some Jews are directly impacted by these
issues themselves). But as a group, we Jewish citizens can get more specific about the actions needed to make our country’s policies reflect our core values.

Starting with our highest value of pikuach nefesh (preservation of human life), that should lead us to allow anyone into the country with credible fear for their life — from any country. To get to that point, we could tell our members of Congress to support the Lady Liberty Act to ensure that the cap on the number of refugees admitted stays at or above historic levels and the No Ban Act (or similar legislation to overturn the ban on people entering the United States from several Muslim countries), and to vote against the so-called Secure and Protect Act, which would effectively dismantle the U.S. asylum system and allow children to be detained for longer. We can also submit public comments on the proposed regulations to prohibit people who enter the southern border from seeking asylum (that prohibition is currently blocked by the courts, but only temporarily).

Our tradition also teaches us not to oppress the stranger (gar lo tilchatz), which should lead us to let people live freely while they go through immigration or asylum-seeking processes. Here, too, we can urge our members of Congress to do the right thing. They can repeal Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act (which is what the Trump administration has used to justify detaining those with credible asylum claims as well as separating children from their families), or at least support the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act to increase oversight for detention facilities and invest in alternatives to detention.

In the absence of congressional action, we can also donate to bail funds and organizations that help immigrants get legal representation, encourage our local and state leaders to support legal aid for asylum seekers, and advocate for individual people, such as Jesus, whose detention has prevented him from finishing the paperwork to renew his legal status.

Another related commandment tells us not to subvert the stranger’s rights (lo tateh mishpat gar), which calls on us to create guardrails against the worst abuses. We should tell our members of Congress not to fund the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Agencies unless they addresses longstanding issues with misconduct and guarantees a ratio of asylum
officers to CBP agents (to counter Trump’s April 29 memo to replace asylum officers with CBP agents).

In addition, because greed can motivate especially egregious behavior, we should tell our members of Congress to ban for-profit detention facilities — or at least to stop giving them tax breaks, and until that ban is passed can pressure banks to end their financing relationship with for profit detention facility operators. Locally we can discourage our local governments from acting as immigration enforcement agents by entering into 287(g) agreements, since doing so undermines community trust, or from doing business with ICE.

In the absence of the changes above, if we see ICE in action we can document the encounter, and can consider joining Never Again Action in their direct actions to disrupt ICE’s regular functioning.

If we’re serious about the values that we profess, we cannot simply wring our hands our
even shout slogans. We must take concrete action to put our values into practice. n

Rachel Metz is a Washington-based analyst and writer on social justice issues

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