America Needs a Just and Equitable Immigration Policy: If Not Now, When?

April 6, 2021Rabbi Lee Bycel

It is difficult to imagine anyone not moved by the scenes of children seeking asylum at our southern border. As I look into their eyes and hear their stories of the violence, poverty, corruption, and hopelessness in their home countries, I think of the million Jewish children who died in the Holocaust because the Roosevelt administration refused to give them a safe haven.

Today, the national debate on immigration in America is dominated by two opposing camps. There are those who take to heart poet Emma Lazarus’ words on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free...” And there are those who have hardened their hearts to the plight of the refugees, insisting that they import crime and disease, take our jobs, drain us economically, and threaten our way of life.

This tension is reflected in the inability of Congress to adopt just and equitable immigration legislation.

We need a new immigration policy that is compassionate, just, equitable, and anchored in ethical and religious core values.

The foundational Jewish value of welcoming and embracing the stranger appears 36 times in the Torah: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20). But given the magnitude of the situation, simply not doing wrong to a stranger seems inadequate. In the context of America in 2021, perhaps it is time to reframe the verse in this way: You shall do right by the stranger by providing sanctuary to all who come seeking a safe haven.

During the Holocaust, a number of individuals found a way to do right. One of them was Varian Fry, a 32-year-old American Protestant author and editor who spent 13 months in Marseilles helping to rescue approximately two thousand Jews from the Nazis. Fry wrote in 1942:

“There are some things so horrible that decent men and women find them impossible to believe, so monstrous that the civilized world recoils incredulous before them… We can offer asylum now, without delay or red tape… There have been bureaucratic delays in visa procedure which have literally condemned many to death… This is a challenge which we cannot, must not, ignore." (The Massacre of Jews in Europe." The New Republic).

Fry became the first American to be named “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem (Israel’s official memorial to Holocaust victims) for risking his life to save Jews.

It has been almost 80 years since Varian Fry challenged civilization to do right by the stranger, yet there are more people wandering the earth as refugees today than ever before. The quagmire of bureaucracy for those seeking asylum grows worse each day. The challenge to respond remains urgent but is mostly is unheeded.

On Yom HaShoah, I remember saying Kaddish at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. But remembrance that does not lead to action is not enough. We must demand that our nation’s legislators transcend the heat of rhetoric and partisan politics and do right by the stranger by passing a new immigration act grounded in the values of justice, compassion, equity and fairness – restoring the promise of America as a light unto the nations.

Learn more about the Reform Jewish Movement's immigration reform work by visiting rac.org/immigration.

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