Monthly Archives: February 2010

Short Memories: Jews and Immigration

Even though attitudes in the Jewish community towards illegal immigration appear to have hardened, a February report published by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) suggests that the Jewish immigration experience over the past century has more in common with present-day migrants than many Jews recognize or fully appreciate.

Each year, the DHS’ Office of Immigration Statistics gamely puts out “Estimates of the Unauthorized Immigrant Population Residing in the United States.” Even the government statisticians acknowledge the limitations of their data collection: keeping an accurate count of immigrants, particularly those here illegally, is far from an exact science. The experts assume that their estimate of illegal immigrants may be 10 percent lower than the actual numbers. Nonetheless, using the same methodology from year to year provides at the very least a good indication of trends. They show that between 2007 and 2009, the U.S. illegal immigrant population dropped by 8.5 percent–from 11.8 million to 10.8 million.

In short, the numbers show what anyone who is basically sentient could guess. American jobs started drying up in 2007 when the housing bubble burst and the construction industry fell apart. As the Great Recession hit and employment prospects plunged, the population of illegal immigrants, most of whom come here to work, naturally shrank. The contraction reversed a trend. Between 2000 and 2007, the number of illegal immigrants had climbed by nearly 39 percent, virtually tracking the growth rate of the U.S. economy, and defying the massive buildup of the nation’s immigration and border enforcement.

What’s all that got to do with the Jewish experience? Most American Jews are Ashkenazi descendants of Eastern Europeans who immigrated between 1881 and 1914, the beginning of World War I. Jews in the Russian Empire had been forced to live inside the Pale of Settlement, which included parts of present-day Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. They were forbidden from living in certain cities within the Pale and from holding certain occupations. Pogroms, anti-Jewish riots that occurred during the period, raged in hundreds of towns. Mobs killed more than 2,000 people, destroyed homes, and injured scores. The three decades saw a mass departure of Russian Jews. Two million of them–nearly one in two residents of the Pale–went abroad, 1.5 million to the United States.

And that’s where, in the minds of many Jews, the modern day exodus story often ends. The common wisdom engrained in popular Jewish consciousness is that Eastern European Jews immigrated because of persecution. This Twitter version of history is summarized, for instance, in the online Beginner’s Guide to Jewish Genealogy: “The majority of these Jewish immigrants were from Russia and Russian-held portions of Poland, escaping discrimination and pogroms (extreme persecutions).”

The reality is more complicated. As the late Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg put it in The Jews in America, “In fact, pogroms (physical attacks on Jews) played a minor role as a cause of the emigration of Jews from Eastern Europe. The dominant cause of mass migration was poverty.” Hertzberg suggested that the widely accepted persecution explanation is a sort of mythologized vision of the past. “[I]t is much better to imagine that one’s grandparents were already the ‘better people’ in Russia and that America was the haven of refuge from anti-Semitism,” he wrote. “The truth is starker and more heroic. The Jews from Russia arrived in the United States penniless and largely uneducated…”

In a 2007 book chapter, “Were Jews Political Refugees or Economic Migrants?,” UCLA economics professor Leah Platt Boustan provides a painstakingly thorough debunking of the “common belief that the exodus from Russia was a uniquely Jewish event and thus cannot be incorporated into a general model of migration.” Boustan compares migration flows of Russian Jews and of Austro-Hungarians and Italians during the same period, showing that the “timing of Jewish migration, like that of other migrations to the New World, responded to economic conditions.” Boustan doesn’t discount the push of anti-Semitism and political hardship, but does make the case that persecution along with the combination of economic adversity in Russia and promise in the United States spurred the move to what the predominantly Yiddish-speaking immigrants called die goldene medina, the “golden land.”

That view directly contradicts the perspective of Stephen Steinlight, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) in Washington, D.C., who has emerged as a leading Jewish voice in favor of more restrictionist immigration policies. “Jews during the Great Wave fled pogroms, oppression, and discrimination,” he wrote recently. “There’s no commonality between the Jewish refugees of that era and today’s economic migrants.” He concluded, “[A] growing majority of American Jews opposes illegal immigration because a confident American identity makes them empathize with fellow Americans first, not immigrants.”

It’s a potent argument, one that essentially calls on assimilated American Jews, blinded by the fog of historical memory, to disregard their own ancestral experiences and draw an artificial line between us and them. Steinlight rightly assumes that identity breeds empathy. If we can somehow disassociate our own experiences from those of more recent border crossers, we can try to convince ourselves that those people are not like us. Empathy does loom large in the Jewish experience, and public opinion surveys show that Jews tend to be comparatively tolerant of illegal immigrants. But attitudes may be changing. A 2007 poll by the American Jewish Committee showed that 67 percent of Jews backed some form of legalization program for illegal immigrants. By December 2009, according to a CIS survey, the percentage of Jews supporting a path to legalization was down to 60 percent.

In this regard, the changing Jewish opinion is in line with historic patterns of attitudes towards immigration. Namely, depressed economies are often accompanied by anti-immigrant sentiment and legislation. But Jews would do well to draw a lesson from our own history and resist the temptation to scapegoat and demonize those whose crimes consist mainly of crossing political boundaries in search of better lives. Immigrants from eastern and southern Europe were viewed not only as “hereditary defectives,” they were considered dirty, depraved, disease ridden, crime prone, a burden on society, and incapable of assimilation. If anything, the Jewish experience points to the need to address root causes of immigration, and to avoid the folly of treating immigrants as occupying invaders. And if the lessons of the last century aren’t sufficient, in dealing with illegal immigrants, Jews of conscience can benefit from the guidance of Hillel some 2,000 years ago: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”



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Immigration Reform: The Time is Now! Meets Legislative Reality

Hundreds of people who jammed into a Los Angeles union hall for a town hall meeting about immigration reform on Saturday morning got a bargain. Expecting to hear from just one influential member of the House of Representatives, audience members ended up getting two messages for the price of one.

Rep. Xavier Becerra

Rep. Xavier Becerra. Photo by Jeffrey Kaye.

An idealistic Democratic Congressman, Xavier Becerra of Los Angeles, shared a podium with the more pragmatic version of himself. One person embodying two realities: a longtime proponent of immigration reform and a realist experienced in vote counting.

The rally was called “2010: The Year of Immigration Reform Town Hall.” Sponsored by community and labor advocates of immigration reform, the meeting was held at the offices of the Long Term Care Workers Union, a branch of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which represents more immigrant workers than any other union in the United States.

As the gathering got underway, the multi-ethnic crowd was pumped. Organizers distributed special headsets so that audience members could hear interpreters providing simultaneous translations into Spanish, English, Armenian, and Chinese. Close to where I was sitting, students, mostly girls, from the Social Justice Academy at Hollywood High School wearing “Legalize L.A.” t-shirts, applauded as speakers were introduced.

But, from the beginning, calls to action, announcements about forthcoming rallies and marches, and passionate pleas about the pressing need for immigration reform seemed tempered by reality. The town hall’s moderator, Angelica Salas of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights (CHIRLA), announced that two of the invited guests whose pictures had graced the event poster – Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles) – had scheduling conflicts and so would not be appearing (Waxman has a safe seat, but Boxer may face a serious challenge from whoever wins the GOP primary). And before Becerra showed up, Salas, clearly anticipating that the Congressman might deliver a somber caution, coached the packed room on how to respond if Becerra demonstrated any inclination to extend the battle for immigration reform beyond 2010.

“I want to hear from you guys: ‘The time is now!’” The audience chanted responsively. Salas repeated the instruction. “What are you going to say? ‘The time is now!’” And again, for emphasis: “If someone says, ‘We have to wait,’ what are you going to say?” The students near me along with the rest of the crowd got the point: “The time is now!” they yelled.

Becerra took the stage after other speakers pressed the point. A tearful 15 year old named Beatríz told of her suicide attempt after immigration agents came to deport her mother. UCLA’s Raúl Hinojosa-Ojeda summarized a report he recently released arguing that the United States could gain from legalizing illegal immigrants. “We are on the side, not only of justice, but economic benefit,” he declared. CHIRLA organizer Rey Barrera enthusiastically described the work of Reform Immigration for America in generating support for an immigration reform bill.

By contrast, Becerra seemed ready to downplay expectations. The son of immigrants (“every day my father helped build America,” he said) and the vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, spoke forthrightly about the chances for immigration reform. “We don’t yet have the momentum,” he explained. As if on cue, the girls from Hollywood High chanted almost in a stage whisper, “The time is now!”

Becerra continued his theme, comparing the quest for immigration reform to the civil rights movement. “It didn’t happen overnight,” he explained, providing his view of what he called “the naked truth.”

“It will not be easy, but it will come,” he said. “In the House of Representatives, I firmly believe that we will have the votes to pass comprehensive immigration reform,” he continued. As the crowd applauded, Becerra described a more complete picture of reality. “But there’s always a ‘but,’” he said. “In the Senate, I can’t guarantee you that there are the votes. And principally I can’t guarantee you that there are the votes because in the Senate, a dysfunctional Senate, we need a super-majority to get anything done…The Republicans in the Senate have decided to make every vote in the Senate a supermajority vote. You can’t sneeze in the Senate without asking for 60 votes. That’s why health care reform hasn’t become law.”

Becerra, a co-sponsor of the immigration reform bill recently introduced in the House, explained that while some members of Congress are receptive to the idea of immigration reform, “they don’t feel it in Washington, D.C. the way you feel it. They don’t feel this in some parts of this country the way you and Beatríz feel this,” he repeated, referring to the teenager who had preceded him at the podium.

Frustrated questioners asked him about the delays and about whether the President’s election promise to bring illegal immigrants in from the shadows was still in play. Becerra cited other domestic priorities – health care reform and jobs.
“He hears a lot from people who say we need immigration reform,” Becerra said, “but I don’t believe –” At that point, I couldn’t hear the rest of his sentence. It was interrupted as the girls of Hollywood High started a chorus that, as it was picked up by others throughout the room, drowned out Becerra’s words: “The time is now! The time is now!” It lasted for 50 seconds, and Becerra stood quietly.

“I agree,” he finally said as the chanting ended with applause. “I agree. Now, we just have to convince a majority of the House and Senate that the time is now. That’s the problem. We have to convince a majority.”

As he cautioned patience, Becerra asked the crowd to encourage friends and co-workers elsewhere in the country to contact their legislators, saying lawmakers need to know that support for immigration reform exists in places “where they’re not expecting it.”

After he finished, one of the students behind me, Leslie, explained her own frustration. Although she is a citizen, her sister and brother are in the country illegally. Brought here by their parents, her sibling and many of her friends can’t attend college, and so they perform menial jobs for cash. Feeling vulnerable, they can’t complain, she said, so they get paid less than other workers. Her aunt was arrested by immigration authorities and is under house arrest as her case moves through the immigration court. Leslie’s family typifies the precarious existence faced by millions of people living in the shadows who also feel, “The time is now!”

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Police Chief to Immigrants: May the Force Be With You

LAPD Chief Charlie Beck listens as Cap. Rigoberto Romero translates his remarks. Photo courtesy CHIRLA

Activists at political rallies are accustomed to the sight of police officers, uniformed and plainclothes, observing their actions. But rarely are cops featured as invited guests and welcomed participants. So it came as somewhat as a surprise last night when the new Los Angeles police chief, Charlie Beck, decked out in uniform, stood before an immigrants’ rights rally at La Placita church downturn to declare to a crowd of about 1,000 that “a person’s immigration status alone is not the business of the Los Angeles Police Department!”

Although there were some boos and catcalls, the hostile reaction to Beck was, for the most part drowned out as the audience roared its appreciation, with a standing ovation and chants of “Si se peude!” the immigrant’s rights and labor slogan, appropriated in an English-language version by Barack Obama as: “Yes we can!”

The sight of a room packed with Latino activists, many likely at risk for deportation, cheering for a police chief at a rally with the theme “La Lucha Continúa” (The Struggle Continues) seemed discordant. But the chief’s brief remarks were only the reiteration of a 30-year-old policy–known as Special Order 40–which prohibits Los Angeles police officers from “initiat(ing) police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person.” Previous police chiefs have also emphasized their desire to work with the immigrant community rather than alienate them. But such declarations generally came in official statements, closed-door meetings, or press interviews. This was the first time, according to Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrants Rights, who organized the gathering along with labor leader Maria Elena Durazo, that a police chief actually attended a political rally to take the stage with leading immigrants’ rights advocates.

“I think it was important,” said Salas. “You saw the standing ovation. That combination of applauding and booing is where people are. There’s distrust of the police in general, but if people are questioned about their immigration status, they can say ‘that’s not in line with what the police chief has said.'”

The police department’s standing in the Los Angeles immigrant community has been particularly tentative since May Day 2007, when police officers beat up marchers and journalists at a pro-immigrant rights demonstration. The melee cost the city about $13 million in legal settlements. Payments are still going out to participants who were assaulted by police. Last night Beck apologized for not addressing the crowd in Spanish. His statements were translated by Captain Rigoberto Romero, an immigrant from the Mexican state of Michoacán who is in line to be Beck’s liaison to the Los Angeles Latino community. “This is your police department,” said Beck. “Everyone deserves the same level of service, regardless of immigration status… Public safety is not based on where you were born.”

After he finished speaking, the police chief shook hands with the featured speaker, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), then left the room. Gutierrez addressed the rally to pump up support for the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America’s Security and Prosperity Act of 2009, or “CIR ASAP” for short. Admitting his disappointment that immigration reform was not more of a priority in Washington, Gutierrez reminded his appreciative audience of the growing power of the Latino electorate and of the promises made by Obama and others to bring illegal immigrants in from the shadows. “We say to those seeking our vote as the president sought, that if you’re Democrat or Republican, if you are supporting justice for immigrants, you can count on our support.”

In addition to other provisions which include a route for the legalization of illegal immigrants, the CIR ASAP bill would repeal the so-called 287 (g) program, which allows state and local police who have received training to essentially enforce federal immigration laws. Approximately 75 police departments (not including the Los Angeles Police Department) around the country have signed formal agreements to do so with the Department of Homeland Security. Although it is used primarily in jail settings, the program is controversial because in some cases–most notoriously in Maricopa County, Arizona–police officers have been accused of racial profiling and using their powers to arrest people suspected of being illegal immigrants. And while activists predictably have opposed the program, many top officials in law enforcement have also questioned the program’s effectiveness. A report issued last year by the Police Foundation concluded “The costs of participating in the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) 287(g) program outweigh the benefits.” It quoted an anonymous police chief asking: “How do you police a community that will not talk to you?'”

Before leaving office late last year, Chief Beck’s predecessor, Bill Bratton declared, “I will encourage my successor to adopt the same rigid attitude toward keeping Special Order 40 and keeping the mission of the men and women of the department focused on community cooperation instead of community alienation.” If last night’s very public pronouncement was any indication, the City of L.A.’s top cop got the message.


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