In less than two months, the retelling of the Passover story will remind us that 3,200 years ago the Jewish people made their way out of Egypt — a land in which they had arrived as strangers. The Exodus speaks of the 40 days and 40 nights they spent escaping persecution, oppression and slavery. When we sit at our seders this year and repeat this story to our children and grandchildren, it is most appropriate to relate the plight of this century’s immigrants who share similar journeys.
But it’s not just Passover and the holiday’s symbolic meanings which provide the fabric of our story. The Jewish people are historically all too familiar with expulsion, persecution and discrimination. When we read “The New Colossus” by Jewish poet, writer and translator Emma Lazarus, it is difficult indeed not to feel a lump in our throats. We recall our own ancestors, “homeless, tempest-tossed” people who were “yearning to breathe free.” These reverberating words are in stark contrast to the unprecedented and vicious actions that turn DACA Dreamers into human pawns solely to make good on a campaign promise: the building of a wall to “keep out” strangers seeking freedom.
Never before in America has an entire generation of people been placed in such precarious immigration status. And why is this? The answer sadly is because of political gamesmanship, perhaps unintentionally, having deleterious effects on families.
The most recent immigration proposal sent to Congress is a disingenuous offer to grant legal relief to 1.8 million individuals, including the 790,000 DACA recipients known as Dreamers, who know no homeland other than America.
The plan purports to fix what now is an unbroken process. The current reunification system has strict allowances for spouses, children, parents and siblings. To state that “a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives” is deceptive, at best. According to the Migration Policy Institute, the average immigrant successfully sponsors only two relatives.
Pejorative language has no place in this debate. The term “chain migration” not only misrepresents how the system works, but also reveals an intense disdain for immigrants. It is a contempt with which the Jewish people are well acquainted. It evokes hideous imagery of internment, incarceration, slavery and shackles. Furthermore, the term minimizes the humanity of immigrants who come to the United States on family reunification visas. Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) made the point succinctly on Twitter, writing, “Reminder: ‘chain migration’ is a made up term by the hardline anti-immigration crowd. Its purpose is to dehumanize immigrants. If you’re using that word, you’re declaring a side.”
The coterie of immigration restrictionists have sought to slash family reunification-based immigration in the name of recruiting more immigrants with high skills. On closer inspection, however, this argument both neglects the desire of high-skilled immigrants to bring loved ones with them and discounts the gifts of those who come here on family-based visas. As a relatively young nation, much of America’s economic and cultural successes and strength can be attributed to the immigrant resolve and patriotic love for the “new” home of opportunity.
In reality, our current immigration policies have not kept up with our economic needs. These proposed changes would exacerbate this problem and separate families. Unlike Canada, where one fifth of the population is foreign-born and where immigration is considered to be critical to the nation’s economic success, anti-immigrant nativism is embraced increasingly on our side of the border. So why wouldn’t skilled immigrants flock to countries that for them are welcoming and accommodating?
As the Brookings Institution pointed out, half of America’s Fortune 500 companies were founded either by immigrants or by their children. Immigrants play an outsized role in founding American companies. Yet the “deal” before Congress ignores the connection. It is a reprehensible effort to try to force Democrats into a Sophie’s choice by compelling senators and congressmen to sacrifice one worthy immigrant population to save another.
Now, more than ever, we must reaffirm the legacy that America is the land of hope and opportunity, a safe haven for those all those who are persecuted. When we retell the story of Exodus next month, perhaps we might draw the “then and now” connection and impress upon our children and guests that our bible tells us that we should “show your love for the alien, for [we] were aliens in the land of Egypt.”
Barbara Goldberg Goldman is the vice-chair of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.