U.S. Jewish Leaders United in Condemnation of Trump's Anti-immigration Push

Leaders from movements as diverse as the Reform movement and various ultra-Orthodox groups are articulating similar sentiments

A U.S. Border Patrol agent locks a fence on the U.S.-Mexico border.
JIM WATSON/AFP

NEW YORK — Leaders of American Jewish groups are uniting across ideological lines over one thing: condemnation of U.S. President Donald Trump’s most recent anti-immigration push. Even the leaders of Reform movement and ultra-Orthodox groups are articulating similar sentiments.

“The proposal is of great concern to us. Ours is a global community, and anyone who has friends, relatives or professional colleagues overseas who are not U.S. citizens will feel the impact of this planned measure,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for Agudath Israel of America, told Haaretz.

“It would not even allow American citizens to sponsor their aged or infirm parents to immigrate to the United States.  And it is unclear whether it will provide any way to sponsor religious workers, who are very important to our community,” Shafran said.  “We hope that, should it ever be adopted, the proposal will be amended to ensure that innocent families and institutions are not adversely affected.”

The Reform movement perspective was less pragmatic and more values focused in their response. “As Jews, our tradition calls us to welcome the stranger, a lesson reinforced throughout the centuries we have lived the immigrant experience, including in the U.S.,” said Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism. “The new restrictionswould violate our shared national values and be profoundly harmful to immigrant families and the entire country.”

Two Republican senators introduced a bill this week with presidential backing that would cut legal immigration to the U.S. by half, limit the parameters of family reunification and enact a merit system that would choose applicants based on their ability to speak English, and education and skill levels.

“We are absolutely appalled at this proposal,” Mark Hetfield, president and CEO of HIAS, previously known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, told Haaretz. “We fully expect it to be dead on arrival because it is so anathema to what we are as a country. When family reunification is threatened, after it’s been the cornerstone of immigration policy throughout our country’s history, it is unbelievable.”

Sponsored by Republican Senators Tom Cotton of Arkansas and David Perdue of Georgia, the bill would limit legal immigration to the U.S. to 50,000 people a year and determine who is admitted and granted legal residency and the ability to legally work by favoring applicants based on skill, education and language ability rather than their relationship to relatives already here. Longstanding U.S. policy allows American citizens to sponsor an unlimited number of visas for spouses, parents and minor children, and for a limited number of visas for siblings and adult children. 

Applicants who speak English and have desirable job skills would be given preference under the proposed legislation. 

“Frankly, this represents a racist and ethnic purity test,” Steven Goldstein, executive director of the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, told Haaretz. 

“Those of us in the Jewish community should be especially outraged,” he said. “Our grandparents and great grandparents could not have come to America by and large under these circumstances. When they were refugees they were not allowed to develop skills and education” under the rule of oppressors like Hitler, he added, saying that “President Trump’s immigration policy is telling the American commitment to compassion and diversity to drop dead.”

According to the think tank Migration Policy Institute, last year immigrants and their U.S.-born children numbered 84.3 million people, or 27 percent of the overall U.S. population.

In 2015, 1.38 million foreign-born individuals moved to the United States, a 2 percent increase over 2014. India was the leading place of origin with 179,800 arriving in 2015, followed by 143,200 from China, 139,400 from Mexico, 47,500 from the Philippines, and 46,800 from Canada.

“We’re deeply troubled by a proposal to cut back on immigration generally, which isn’t in our nation’s interest,” said Richard Foltin, director of national and legislative affairs at the American Jewish Committee, in Washington. Referring to the worldwide refugee crisis, he said, “We are very concerned about cutting back on family reunification and capping at 50,000 admissions when we’re seeing the greatest need for succor for refugees we’ve seen in a long, long time.”

In early July the AJC organized a meeting between its Latino-Jewish leadership group and senior White House officials. Immigration was one of three issues discussed, Foltin told Haaretz, in addition to hate crimes and foreign policy. He declined to identify the White House officials involved, but said that the AJC will “continue to seek meetings” with them on issues of concern.

Asked what he thinks is driving the move to limit legal immigration, Hetfield said, “It’s all about political scapegoating. It is the president and legislators saying ‘Let’s find a boogeymonster to blame for all of our problems. It’s really the immigrants’ fault.’“

“What’s ironic is that refugees aren’t bringing terrorism, they’re fleeing terrorism. Immigrants are a boon to our economy, with the drive to do well and to start their own businesses and join the American middle class. They’re blaming the problem on the solution," he continued. "It’s very troubling to see the president and Congressmen trying to take the easy way out by scapegoating innocent people.”

Jewish and other faith communities are feeling propelled by the proposed new legislation to organize in opposition.

The AJC will be working as part of the Interfaith Immigration Coalition, which includes other Jewish, as well as Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Sikh groups.  “Our voice will be heard,” Foltin said, “though it’s too early to say exactly what we will be doing.”

The Anne Frank Center’s Goldstein said that it is also partnering with other groups committed to refugee and immigrant needs. “It’s a subject that really unites many social justice organizations,” he said.