In the Book of Esther, we read the words of Haman about the Jews: “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people, and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.”
With those words, he managed to turn the Jews, who were active in Persian society, into a nameless, shadowy, criminal “other.” His inflammatory rhetoric of fear-mongering was briefly successful (and only foiled by a Jew in the highest of places, Queen Esther). Such provocative language continues to be effective at spreading fear of the other, and today, it affects our laws and conceptions of immigrants.
HIAS Pennsylvania has advocated for immigration reform for 15 years. Why? Because in 1996 there was a major overhaul of our immigration system that turned the clock back on immigration policy and our long tradition of welcoming newcomers.
Three laws — the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act — served to effectively eliminate the possibility for a vast number of individuals to legalize their status. Together, they created a harsh and discriminatory treatment of long-term legal immigrants convicted of minor offenses and stripped previously eligible immigrants and refugees of fundamental safety-net benefits.
At HIAS Pennsylvania, we receive calls on a regular basis from members of our community who wish to sponsor a devoted elderly caregiver, or someone who married an immigrant who may have entered without proper documents 15 years ago. Prior to 1996, such immigrants, after undergoing a screening, would either pay a fine and remain in the United States or return to their home country to process their paperwork in order to enter the country as lawful permanent residents (green card holders).
The 1996 laws essentially eliminated this option by prohibiting undocumented immigrants who leave the United States from re-entering for 10 years, regardless of their extensive family ties in this country or sponsorship by an employer. Faced with the prospect of being separated from their spouses and children for 10 years, many families seeking to remain together disappeared into the shadows and are now hoping for a change in the law.
The “waiting line” to legalize suddenly disappeared after 1996. Often people react with shock and dismay when we explain that there are no options to keep a trusted employee or loved family member in the United States under the current system. We explain that, if the situation had occurred before the 1996 laws, we could have helped.
These laws eliminated due-process protections and stripped immigration judges of the discretion to evaluate situations on a case-by-case basis. The laws mandated permanent deportation for long-term legal immigrants convicted of minor offenses regardless of the nature of the crime and the equities in this country.
Immigration judges were no longer able to consider the individual circumstances of the immigrants and the offense committed. Under this system, we have seen mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters torn from their families for single offenses that occurred 18 or 20 years ago, even if these individuals have been upright citizens ever since.
Finally, the Personal Responsibility Act cut off legal immigrants and refugees from safety-net benefits for which they were previously eligible. In the face of a huge outcry, some benefits were restored to refugees and immigrants on humanitarian grounds. But even today, refugees who cannot naturalize in seven years face the loss of supplement-security income — currently, the only source of income for many low-income elderly and disabled.
Our state is second only to Florida in the number of elderly residents; and young immigrant families here and elsewhere are providing a vital workforce. Most economists agree that a sound immigration policy that includes legalization is part of the solution to dynamic economic growth. We are heartened by the new attention given to immigration and hope our leaders will reach across the aisle and work to reform our immigration laws.
Philippe Weisz is managing attorney at HIAS Pennsylvania, where Ruhi Sophia Rubenstein serves as rabbinic intern.