Can American Jews, who have always embraced ethnic diversity and generous immigration policies, support legislation to curb illegal immigration? Yes, we can -- and we should.
Traditional Jewish support for a liberal U.S. immigration policy has been rooted in two concepts: one practical, one idealistic. The practical is the need to shelter refugees from persecution; the idealistic is our vision of a pluralistic, multiethnic society.
The recent law passed in Arizona, and a similar bill that was proposed in the Pennsylvania House (HB 2479), may not be perfect, but they are broadly consistent with both of these goals.
America -- today a home to all peoples -- opened its doors to successive waves of Jewish immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries. German Jews came in the mid-1800s, working their way up from pushcart peddling to creating the likes of Macy's and Bloomingdale's. Russian Jews came in the early 1900s, fleeing tsarist pogroms. The American Jewish community owes its very existence to America's open doors.
The closing of those doors spelled doom for millions. Despite U.S. Jewry's fervent support for President Franklin Roosevelt, it was his administration that refused to admit all but a handful of European Jews fleeing persecution in the 1930s and '40s.
The longest-serving Jewish member of Congress, Emanuel Celler, who fought unsuccessfully to pry open America's doors during the Holocaust, was the one who eventually brought about the abolition, in 1965, of the old "national origins" immigration quotas, which had kept out people whose countries of origin were considered less desirable (i.e., East European Jews and Italian Catholics).
It's vital to keep in mind, however, that what American Jews like Celler were fighting for was legal immigration. They were seeking flexibility within the existing immigration law, and at least temporary shelter for those fleeing persecution.
American law today provides for both. "The U.S. has the highest legal immigration in the world," former New York City Mayor Ed Koch pointed out in a recent column. "Every year, we allow 750,000 immigrants to enter the country legally and make them eligible for citizenship within five years."
As for emergency shelter, any refugee who can demonstrate a "well-founded fear of persecution" in his or her native land qualifies for asylum and eventual U.S. citizenship. Each year, the president sets the maximum number of refugees who can be granted asylum; for 2010, President Barack Obama has set it at 80,000.
Of course, welcoming strangers from around the globe fosters the kind of diverse, multiethnic society that Jews have long advocated. But there has to be limits.
Recent history provides us with a bitter example of what happens otherwise. In 1980, Fidel Castro decided to empty Cuba's prisons and mental-health facilities. An estimated 125,000 Cubans boarded ships in the Mariel Harbor and headed for Florida. President Jimmy Carter let them in. The problem was not that they were Hispanic; the problem was that so many of them were criminals.
Everyone has the right to expect the U.S. government to enforce federal laws against illegal immigration. Only when the federal government proved lax in its administration of existing laws were individual states compelled to act.
Opponents of the Arizona law and the proposed Pennsylvania measure, recalling the racism and anti-Semitism that sometimes marred American society in the past, understandably fear that action against illegal immigration could lead to oppressive racial profiling.
Arizona has already acted to address those fears with a second measure, requiring police to request proof of citizenship only when they are stopping someone suspected of another crime.
Likewise Pennsylvania's HB 2479 states clearly that a police officer can check a suspect's immigration status only if he has arrested him after determining that there is "probable cause" that the person committed a crime. In law, the suspect's race or ethnicity is irrelevant. It is actions that count.
Benyamin Korn, former executive editor of the Jewish Exponent, is director of Jewish Americans for Sarah Palin and JewsforSarah.com.