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The Torah, the Talmud, and the Undocumented Worker

From: Gideon Aronoff To: John Derbyshire Subject: Numbers are only part of the story John, Numbers do indeed matter. That’s why I posed questions about criteria and numbers and indicated that we need a rational debate to serve our varied … Read More

By / October 12, 2007

From: Gideon Aronoff To: John Derbyshire Subject: Numbers are only part of the story

John,

Numbers do indeed matter. That’s why I posed questions about criteria and numbers and indicated that we need a rational debate to serve our varied interests and values. But numbers can’t be the whole story if we Jews are to truly address America’s dysfunctional immigration system in a Jewish manner.

Those of us in the Jewish community insist that our public policy prescriptions must defend the core dignity of each human being. The Talmud famously teaches us, “To save one life is as if you have saved the world.” Again to quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Britain’s chief rabbi, “Judaism sees society as the arena in which specific ideals are realized: justice, compassion, the rule of law combined with respect for the sanctity of life and the dignity of the individual. The Torah is a unique attempt to create a nation governed not by the pursuit of power or the accumulation of wealth but by recognition of the worth of each person as the image of God.” We Jews take this very seriously, whether or not you do. And this exchange is, after all, about the Jewish take on immigration – and not on whether Kevin MacDonald thinks Jews are misusing immigration policy for nefarious ends.

To focus for the moment on the numbers issues, you use a trusty old technique of diverting attention from the point at hand by using outlandish, even reckless, exaggerations, as in “billions” of people pouring into America. When I say America needs a liberal immigration policy, “liberal” does not equal “open.” No one is arguing that America should admit billions of newcomers. Again I will say that the exact numbers and criteria should be developed through a rational debate in Congress and in American society.

As an American, I find it very distressing to see how a small group of pontificators, who lather up their base with false specters of uncontrolled migration of terrorists, have thus far succeeded in derailing any attempt at a considered, rational approach to the immigration problem. Polls continue to show that a majority of Americans actually want comprehensive immigration reform that includes a realistic path to citizenship for those already here, as well as smart, effective security measures to keep those who want to do us harm out – in short, a system that works for the benefit of America and in keeping with what we as a country purport to be our values.

Staying with the numbers side of the equation, it is crucial to understand that America needs more people to keep our economy running smoothly. This is not mere conjecture – Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke says we will need to raise immigration levels to 3.5 million people annually to overcome the effects of an aging population. His predecessor, Alan Greenspan, made the same point repeatedly during his tenure.

The role of immigrants in our economy is now, as it has always been, a well-established plus. Not only in the entrepreneurial world, as I mentioned in the first piece, citing Intel, Google and other companies started by immigrants – but also in the everyday labor force. For the complete picture, we have to look also at the role of immigrants in agriculture, the service sector, technology, the arts and science, where examples of the contributions to America’s success abound.

Ultimately, what matters to the number-crunchers is that the U.S. continues to see real economic benefits from immigration, and that can be documented in a variety of ways. A recent study by the University of California, for example, showed that between 1990 and 2004, native-born wages increased an average of 1.8% as a consequence of immigration. In addition, the study also said that overall annual growth in Gross Domestic Product is approximately 0.1 percentage point higher as a result of immigration, which represents billions of dollars in economic output and, when compounded across a generation, represents a significant improvement in the standard of living of our children and grandchildren. Dan Siciliano, executive director of Stanford Law School’s Program in Law, Economics and Business, says “the evidence continues to mount in favor of the conclusion that immigration is good for economy, good for jobs, and a critical part of our nation’s future prosperity.”

I would like to now return to a point addressed in my previous response that elicited great disdain and scorn in your reply. While you are skeptical about the value of Torah and Talmud to this debate, we Jews see wrestling with the meaning of Torah as core to what it is to be Jewish. Specifically, on the question of who constitutes a “stranger among us,” you completely ignore the opinion of the identified inspiration for my stance: Orthodox Rabbi Jonathan Sacks who was quoted at some length. Presumably Rabbi Sacks knows something about the meaning of Torah.

I am happy to admit that there is not absolute unanimity in the Jewish world on the meaning of the injunction to welcome the stranger. To be frank, there isn’t this level of unanimity in the Jewish world on anything. However, Rabbi Sacks’ belief of what “a stranger among us” means, is the overwhelming perspective amongst our rabbinate, with fundamental agreement from across the Jewish spectrum. To name just a few, see Rabbi Joshua Maroof (Sephardic); Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal (Conservative); Rabbi Michael Feshbach (Reform); Rabbi Adam Chalom (Humanism); Rabbi Fred Scherlinder Dobb (Reconstructionist); Rabbi Stephen B. Silvern (Renewal); and Rabbi Gershon Winkler (Independent).

As far as calling the notion of a “chosen people” exclusivist – that seems to come from a misinformed gentile understanding of the term – I wouldn’t use the moniker “goyish”. Under our Jewish religion there is a set of obligations that fall upon Jews, who are thus “chosen” to fulfill these obligations. This does not mean that we arrogantly consider ourselves God’s favorites.

Unfortunately, you totally missed my point about the parallelism between waves of Jewish and other immigration. As someone who values people as well as numbers, what I was talking about here was a parallel of motivation, not demographics. I also wanted to point out that prior to the immigration laws of the 1920s, there were essentially no restrictions on immigration (except on the Chinese), so Jews who might today agree with your restrictionist approach should remember that their forebears didn’t necessarily have to break any laws to stay in this country.

But where are the Latin American success stories, you ask. Here’s a recent one, featured by NBC television’s Washington affiliate last week: Alfred Quinones now says he's living proof that not all undocumented workers are laborers, maids and bus boys. He entered this country illegally by climbing a fence along the U.S.-Mexican border, found work picking tomatoes in California, learned English, and later got into U.C. Berkeley, then Harvard Medical School. His U.S. citizenship followed and – 12 years after scaling that fence – he became one of the nation's top neurosurgeons at Johns Hopkins University Hospital, where he is today working to find a cure for brain cancer. He has been called “one of the most accomplished neurosurgeons in the world.”

You can’t predict who’s going to make the greatest contributions, so while the statistics have some value, the patients whose lives are being saved by this illegal immigrant from Latin America don’t give a hoot about some study showing that more European and Asian-born people have started companies here.

You ask why, even with the success stories, we should accept so many people from Latin America – you want diversity. Respectfully, this point makes no sense based on either geography or public policy. The fact that the U.S. has more immigrants from Latin America is a matter of proximity – by and large, people migrate to neighboring places. The fact that Mexicans and Central Americans are such a dominant group is understandable, but not a profound point. We who support comprehensive immigration reform would like to see programs to tie future flows of legal, rather than undocumented, migration, to economic needs – accompanied by effective enforcement measures. This new realistic legal system would promote diversity and fairness because immigrant workers from any part of the world would be able to apply for visas. The advantage of geography would be mitigated.

As far as your answer to how generous we should be to people fleeing persecution – “Not very,” you say. I find this callous response to be contrary to the core Jewish and American traditions. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, in his The Book of Jewish Values, writes eloquently about the Torah’s injunction that “You shall not turn over to his master a slave who seeks refuge with you from his master.” [Deuteronomy 23:16-17]. I have to say that I am astounded that you would have America turn its back on persecuted victims from Iran, Darfur, Burma, and other vicious regimes and lecture them that they should “reform” their countries. One can certainly oppose fraud – I do – without losing our humanity and our compassion for the oppressed.

You also say that my premise that we can’t practically deport 12 million people is false – again you twist the meaning, and answer a different question – I used the word “practically” deliberately, and stand by the assertion that it would not be practical – regardless of whether or not this has been “costed.” Is “between $41 billion and $46 billion annually over five years” indeed practical to you? More impractical is the notion of trying to remove 12 million people – visions of the trains to Auschwitz come to mind – by the U.S. government. That would be a horror only a truly heartless person would relish. Would it be practical to you to see families of mixed status (again the trains to Poland come to mind) ripped apart? Surely, there’s a better way.

John, since we haven’t had the opportunity to meet in person, I checked out your bio on the web and have to say that I am impressed by your accomplishments since immigrating to the United States. I would count as one of your most important achievements the lesson that you teach (paralleling that of Alfred Quinones) that undocumented migrants – or illegal aliens as you would likely describe yourself – can make valuable contributions to our now common homeland if given a second chance at citizenship. I hope we all learn this lesson well.

Ultimately, I conclude that numbers are part of the essence of the immigration issue, but the essence also has to take in the totality of the interest of all Americans – immigrant and non-immigrant, business and labor, religious, non-religious, conservative, liberal and in-between. I believe we can get there, but only if we work together to make it happen. Our side has from the start been ready for this. Sadly, your side has repeatedly shown quite plainly that it has no such interest. One need only think back to June in the U.S. Congress, when the best opportunity at what would have been at least a start was shot down by your vocal minority. This is tragic for Jewish Americans and all Americans, immigrant and native-born alike.

NEXT: Good for America? Good for Jews? Good for the Whole World??

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