While much attention has been paid to the recently enacted Arizona law aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration, less well-known is that a similar law has been introduced in Pennsylvania.
As Jews, we should oppose the law introduced by Rep. Daryl Metcalfe in the Pennsylvania legislature. The legislation, HB 2479, provides, among other things, that police who stop an individual who is "reasonably suspected of being unlawfully present" refer the person to federal immigration authorities.
It is incumbent upon us to support fair immigration policies, and to oppose the divisive Arizona and Pennsylvania laws. Immigration policy is a matter that must be reserved for the federal government, which has the only system capable of regulating our borders. Otherwise, we will have a patchwork of rules from city to city and state to state.
On May 26, police chiefs from across the nation, including Philadelphia, met with Attorney General Eric Holder and condemned Arizona-type laws, saying that they burdened local law enforcement and destroyed building trust with immigrant communities.
In July 2006, Hazleton, Pa., attempted to enact a local ordinance to check documents of those renting apartments or working in the city. The Middle District Court of Pennsylvania declared the law unconstitutional; the case is pending before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals.
Despite the outcome, the effects of the ordinance are palpable. Many legal immigrants, particularly Latino, closed up their businesses and left the area. A study of Hazleton conducted by Zogby International found that immigrants contributed to the growth of the city, but that because of the ordinance, "fear reigns supreme, and the biggest fear is that this great tradition (of ethnic diversity) can be hijacked, especially by national demagogues trying to accent the worse."
The Arizona and Pennsylvania laws are based on the view that immigrants are harmful to the country. They are based on fear and myths. Immigrants are often scapegoated and accused of taking jobs away from "Americans." To the contrary, immigration leads to economic growth.
In a 2006 open letter on immigration to President George W. Bush, 500 economists wrote that "overall, immigration has been a net gain for American citizens." In Pennsylvania, immigrants fill niche jobs in agriculture, the service and health care fields, in science and at our universities. Pennsylvania has one of the oldest workforces in the country; it has the fifth largest elderly population nationally. Young families and workers are needed both in Philadelphia and in the state to expand the workforce.
According to the Brookings Institution, immigrants accounted for nearly 75 percent of the labor-force growth in Philadelphia from 2000 to 2006. In addition, immigrants bolster the Social Security system. There is currently $189 billion in the national Social Security suspense file, contributed in large part by immigrants who cannot collect these funds because they are not eligible for benefits, or they leave this country before they can collect them. As a result, decreasing legal immigration would cause the Social Security deficit to increase by 31 percent over a 50-year period.
Today's Jewish community is an active and fully integrated part of American society. Not too long ago, however, we were the ones perceived as outsiders and unfit to be part of this country's social fabric. Our people, too, were refused the right to enter this land through enforcement of immigration quotas on the basis of fear or disdain of the outsider.
At HIAS, we are working to promote comprehensive immigration reform that would provide sufficient visas for family members who face years of separation; create a process for legalization for those who satisfy reasonable criteria; provide legal avenues for workers needed here; and ensure that international law is maintained in asylum and refugee policies.
It is time for congressional leadership on this critical issue.
Judith Bernstein-Baker is executive director of HIAS and Council. Ilan Rosenberg, an attorney and co-chair of HIAS' Policy Committee, is on the pro bono team at Cozen O'Connor that challenged the Hazleton ordinance in federal court.