Hearing on Comprehensive Immigration Reform: Faith-Based Perspectives

Hearing on Comprehensive Immigration Reform: Faith-Based Perspectives

Statement of
Richard T. Foltin, Esq., Director of National and Legislative Affairs
Office of Government and International Affairs
American Jewish Committee


Submitted on behalf of the American Jewish Committee to
The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee
on Immigration, Refugees and Border Security

Hearing on Comprehensive Immigration Reform: Faith-Based Perspectives

October 8, 2009

From its founding in 1906, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) has been a strong voice in support of fair and generous treatment of immigrants, participating actively in many of the major immigration debates of our time: opposing reductions in the flow of legal immigrants; supporting increased "family unification" immigration; supporting efforts to reduce the flow of illegal immigration and enforce immigration laws within the context of due process and humane treatment; supporting policies that assure that the U.S. fulfill its role as a haven for refugees fleeing persecution; supporting access to public benefits for legal immigrants on the same basis as citizens; and supporting programs designed to educate and integrate new citizens.

In advocating for these policies, AJC acts in accord with the American Jewish community's long-standing interest in, and commitment to, a United States immigration and refugee policy that represents our nation's best traditions. According to Jewish tradition, "strangers" are to be welcomed and valued, as we were once "strangers in the land of Egypt." The Torah tells us: "The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt" (Leviticus 19:33-34). Further, we recall how our parents and grandparents made their way to this country seeking a better life, often fleeing persecution, and know that we have prospered because of all that this country has offered us. That same opportunity should be available for others as well.

AJC continues to reaffirm its commitment to fair and generous immigration policies, as fundamentally good for the United States and consistent with Jewish values. Even today, Jewish immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers immigrate to the United States from all corners of the world, including such places as the former Soviet Union, Yemen, Iran, and Central and South America. But our commitment to appropriate immigration policies is not only about the Jewish community, which today constitutes only a small portion of the immigration flow. It is fundamentally about what we see as in the best interests of our country overall, as well as assuring that our nation acts in accord with its highest values. At the same time, we recognize the urgent need for reform of our visa, border and admissions systems, in order to keep out those who wish to do us harm. American immigration policies must be consistent with safeguarding our national security through maintaining control over our nation's borders and enforcing the nation's immigration laws in a fashion consistent with due process and humane treatment. We are also committed to measures that better incorporate newcomers into American society and culture.

We call for immigration reform because each day in our congregations, service programs, health-care facilities, and schools we witness the human consequences of a broken and outdated system. We see the exploitation of undocumented workers and the plight of separated families, as well as the escalation of community fear due to enforcement measures that are neither smart nor humane. Comprehensive immigration reform would help put an end to this suffering, opening the door to a better life for those who desire to work hard and contribute in a positive way to American society but for now must live in the shadows, a situation that offends the dignity of all human beings.

History has demonstrated that immigrants enrich this nation economically and culturally, and immigration remains a central ingredient to retaining America's economic strength and its proud tradition of democratic pluralism. According to a CATO Institute report, legalization of immigrants would yield significant income gains for American workers and households.1 The study found that legalization of low-skilled immigrant workers would result in an income gain of 1.27 percent of GDP or $180 billion for U.S. households. Furthermore, legalization would allow immigrants to have higher productivity and create more openings for Americans in higher skilled occupations. As such, a fair and generous immigration policy not only reflects our highest values of freedom, opportunity, and family cohesion, but would also benefit our nation materially.
Comprehensive immigration reform must provide a holistic approach to reforming our immigration system. Such reform should include:

1. Changes to family immigration laws.

Family is the cornerstone of American society. United families build strong individuals and strong communities. Right now, many immigrant families remain separated for years - sometimes even decades - because of the bureaucratic visa delays. Comprehensive immigration reform means reforming the immigration system to expedite the visa process in favor of family reunification. This includes making family-based visas more accessible, reducing the current backlog of family-based visas, and generally reorienting the visa system to prioritize family unity. Further, it is important that, in reforming the immigration system, we push back against efforts to deny citizenship to immigrant children born in the United States, which violates the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Also, we must ensure that family-based visas are not placed in competition with other visa categories. Provisions such as these are inhumane and harmful to the goal of family unity.

2. A path to legalization for immigrants already in the United States.

There are an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants currently residing in the United States. Comprehensive immigration reform would provide these immigrants with a path to legal status and eventual earned citizenship. This track to citizenship should be realistic, rather than being so burdensome that it prevents integration. Reasonable criteria may include learning English, having a job, maintaining a criminal-free background, and/or paying a modest fine. However, fines should not be excessive, exemptions should be made for vulnerable populations, and immigrants should not have to return to their country of origin to apply for legal status or citizenship. These measures would only deter participation in the legalization process.

3. Facilitation and support for immigrant integration.

Many immigrants desire to naturalize but lack the necessary tools. AJC believes that the successful acculturation of immigrants is fundamental to a sound immigration policy, and urges greater efforts to facilitate newcomers' adjustment to American society. Acculturation efforts should convey an understanding of and appreciation for American democratic institutions, patriotism, and constitutional principles, including equality under the law and due process. At the same time, without a vigorous commitment to pluralism and respect for immigrant cultures, America risks increasing ethnic tension and resentment. Both the successful incorporation of immigrants and a respect for pluralism are necessary to preserve the "American dream" and sustain democracy.

Consistent with these beliefs, AJC supports the creation and/or reinvigoration of, as well as increased funding for programs and practices designed to effectively acculturate immigrants, including increased support for programs for adults and children Also, comprehensive immigration reform should include greater emphasis on the importance of learning English by newcomers-adults and children-with greater funding for such programs so that all who wish to do so have the opportunity to learn English upon their arrival in the U.S. or soon thereafter. Finally, there must be recognition that acculturation cannot be accomplished without the significant participation of community institutions.

4. Smart and humane enforcement measures that bolster our national security.

Border policies must be consistent with humanitarian values and with the need to treat all individuals with respect, while allowing the United States to implement its immigration laws and identify and prevent the entry of criminals, and of persons who wish to do us harm or otherwise pose a risk to our national security.

In updating and reforming border security measures, there should be (1) greater intelligence sharing regarding potential terrorists among the nation's intelligence and gatekeeper agencies; (2) increased use of state-of-the-art anti-fraud technology to create counterfeit-resistant passports and visas, and analyze suspect documents; (3) layers of security with multiple screening points for those departing for and arriving in the U.S.; and (4) improvements in the system that tracks foreign nationals who enter and leave the U.S., including the vigorous monitoring of those who enter with student, visitor, or employment visas; matching of entries into and exits from the U.S. in order to better alert the government to those who stay in the U.S. beyond the terms of their visas; and improved enforcement of applicable laws for those who overstay their visas.

5. Reforming detention policies and due process protections.

Immigration policies should respect human rights and ensure due process for all persons. We have witnessed how indiscriminate immigration raids have caused trauma and hardship for thousands of individuals. Such raids separate families, destroy communities, and threaten the basic rights of immigrants and U.S. citizens alike. The suffering caused by the overreliance on Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids in homes and workplaces, and by the INA 287(g) program (which has led to widespread misuse of local law enforcement in civil immigration matters and racial profiling, and has imposed a chilling effect on communities), underscores the problems with current U.S. immigration policies and the urgent need for reform.

We urge the new Administration and Congress to reduce the use of detention for immigrants, especially vulnerable groups and those seeking asylum, and improve detention conditions by enacting clear, enforceable reforms that include rigorous medical treatment standards and increased access to pastoral care, legal counsel and legal orientation programs. Furthermore, the government should expedite the release of asylum seekers and others who pose no risk to the community, and expand the use of community-based alternatives to detention, which are more humane and cost effective. In short, enforcement measures such as detention and raids should be narrowly tailored, and should be carried out in a humane fashion and in accord with due process.

To the extent Congress considers, as part of comprehensive immigration reform, the creation of a mandatory electronic work-eligibility verification system and action on "employer sanctions" that penalize employers for the knowing employment of unauthorized immigrants, such measures should incorporate adequate safeguards to protect workers from discrimination in the workplace.

In sum, AJC calls upon our elected officials to enact legislation that includes the following: An opportunity for hard-working immigrants who are already contributing to this country to come out of the shadows, regularize their status upon satisfaction of reasonable criteria and, over time, pursue an option to become lawful permanent residents and eventually United States citizens; reforms in our family-based immigration system to significantly reduce waiting times for separated families who currently wait many years to be reunited; the creation of legal avenues for workers and their families who wish to migrate to the U.S. to enter our country and work in a safe, legal, and orderly manner with their rights fully protected; and border protection policies that are consistent with humanitarian values and with the need to treat all individuals with respect, while allowing the authorities to carry out the critical task of identifying and preventing entry of terrorists and dangerous criminals, thereby bolstering our national security as well as pursuing the legitimate task of implementing American immigration policy.

AJC urges our elected officials to conduct the immigration reform debate in a civil and respectful manner, mindful not to blame immigrants for our social and economic ills or for the atrocities committed by the few who have carried out acts of terrorism. A polarized process lacking in civility hinders deliberative discourse and fails to serve our nation's best interests.

As a faith-based organization, we call attention to the moral dimensions of public policy and pursue policies that uphold the human dignity of each person, all of whom are made b'tselem elohim, in the image of G-d. We engage the immigration issue with the goal of fashioning an immigration system that facilitates legal status and family unity in the interest of serving the God-given dignity and rights of every individual, even as it enhances out national security and promotes respect for the rule of law. It is our collective prayer that the legislative process will produce a just immigration system of which our nation of immigrants can be proud.

AJC appreciates the opportunity to submit this statement and welcomes your questions and comments.

1. Peter B. Dixon and Maureen T. Rimmer, Restriction or Legalization? Measuring the Economic Benefits of Immigration Reform, Center for Trade Policy Studies, CATO Institute, No. 40, August 13, 2009, P.1.





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