Treating Strangers Justly

While cleaning my kitchen for Pesach this year, I took a break to email a friend. Because I run Immigration Equality, a non-profit organization that provides advice and representation to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and HIV-positive immigrants, friends often ask me for immigration help. This one wanted advice for two young women — both graduates of local high schools who had come from Mexico as children. What could they do to get out of legal limbo and improve their lives? My reply: “Nothing.”

United States’ immigration policy has created a class of people who, although they work hard, pay their taxes, and raise American children, will live and die as legal non-persons. Many do messy, dangerous jobs — in construction, food processing, and childcare, for starters — with insufficient safeguards from their employers or the law. Combine hard, dangerous work with the permanent denial of legal rights and it doesn’t have to be Passover for us to see the parallels to slavery.

The comprehensive immigration reform packages proposed in the U.S. Congress in 2006 and 2007 failed to pass after more than a year of debate. Many conservatives attacked the bills as too lenient for offering a restrictive, glacially paced route to citizenship for women like the ones my friend described, while liberals refused to accept the numerous concessions Congress sought in exchange. The legislation ultimately died. In the process, the vicious public debate reminded the world of America’s xenophobic streak.

Nearly a year after the left held out for better and the right held out for worse, the result is… worse. Antiimmigrant members of Congress have continued to push their agenda — more walls and patrols at the Mexican border, more jails for immigration detainees, more raids at factories — without offering any solution to people who have built their lives here or to their employers. This “enforcement-only” strategy raises few complaints: immigrants proved to be such an easy target for bigotry that legislators fear looking “soft” if they oppose it. Yes, millions of people blanketed the streets of major cities from Dallas to Chicago, and from Washington DC to Des Moines to San Diego in the March and April of 2006 to demand justice and equality — but only some of them can vote.

Meanwhile, disturbing trends in immigration law persist, including:

The escalating deportation for minor crimes. These penalties are retroactive, so a bar fight broken up by the police 20 years ago, which had no immigration consequences at the time, can cost someone his or her green card today (a situation faced by a former client of mine).

Increasingly aggressive raids by immigration officials; tactics include rounding up employees at their workplaces and separating them from young children with no notice; or entering private homes under false pretenses, without a warrant.

Lack of access to counsel. My client was lucky to have a lawyer, as immigrants have no right to counsel in immigration court even if they are incarcerated and facing permanent expulsion.

National I.D. cards for workers. Proposals for an “employer verification system” are hot in Congress, where they look like an easy “get tough” measure. They’re far from cheap, however, with an estimated four percent error rate, ensuring that American citizens, legal permanent residents and workauthorized immigrants will be wrongly accused and likely fired.

Judaism binds our treatment of “outsiders” to a hyper-consciousness of the fact that outsider-ness is entirely situational. “When a ger [variously translated as stranger, sojourner, immigrant] dwells with you in your land, do not oppress him. The ger who dwells with you should be like one of your citizens; love him like yourself, for you were gerim in the land of Egypt.” (Lev. 19:33-34) If we have become insiders in the United States, we are obligated to act for the benefit of others, both passively (“Do not oppress [them]”) and actively (“Love [them] like yourself”).

Rachel B. Tiven is the Executive Director of Immigration Equality, a national organization fighting for equal immigration rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and HIV-positive community.