It was a political shock: More than 80 Jewish educators from across the U.S. gasped when told that deportations of illegal immigrants in the U.S. are at an all-time high under the Obama administration. Since 2009, they have already surpassed the record of deportations during the Bush presidency.
Amid the larger venue of the American Federation of Teachers biennial convention at the Washington State Convention Center, which drew 4,000 to the Northwest this month, New York-based Jewish Labor Committee executive director Martin Schwartz convened a panel of three speakers for its Educators Chapter breakfast on July 10.
All called for swift action toward immigration reform and equal rights for all laborers. Moreover, they said, reform will positively impact the educational system, the economy, and families across America when — or if — this issue is settled.
“There are approximately 11 million undocumented people in this country,” said Melanie Nezer, an immigration attorney and the director of the Washington, D.C. office of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.
HIAS is a 130-year-old New York-based organization that provides refugee services to Jews and non-Jews around the world.
“Two million of them are undocumented children under 18,” Nezer added, “but 3.1 million children, U.S. citizens, have at least one undocumented parent…and live in a state of constant anxiety.”
A January 2009 estimate from the Department of Homeland Security confirms that 10.8 million people were in the country illegally, down by 1 million since 2007.
“Deportations are at a record high right now,” said Nezer, “and what happens to the children? If the breadwinner gets deported, what happens when the parent who stays here has to work? What if the children have to go back with the parent? They’re used to the kind of educational standards we have here. What are they going to do in Honduras, in poverty?”
In 2008, DHS records show that Border Patrol apprehensions of illegal aliens decreased from more than 723,800 in 2008, to over 556,000 in 2009. The reason for the 23 percent reduction, claims DHS, is that fewer people are attempting to illegally cross the border.
“Right now it’s a lot of talk and very little action,” Nezer said, referencing Pres. Obama’s highly anticipated but coolly received speech on immigration reform last month. “Politics is trumping everything and U.S. citizen children bear the brunt of our failed immigration policies.”
In what may be a sideshow to the policy debate, arguments in several lawsuits over Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 will soon play out in court. The bill allows officers to question a person’s citizenship status when stopped for another violation The bill also requires that officers must have a reason to request the documentation.
Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox filed a legal brief in federal court on behalf of nine states that support Arizona’s right to enforce its more lenient version of federal immigration laws. In total, 23 states have indicated that they support the Arizona law or intend to pass similar legislation.
“This is not who we are as a people,” said Jeff Johnson, the special assistant to the president of the Washington State Labor Council, AFL-CIO. Johnson joined Local 2190 of the American Federation of Teachers in 1976, and taught Labor Economics and Labor Studies to union members in New York City.
“We need to create a pathway to citizenship, the right for families to be reunified, protecting all workers under the same labor rights including the right to join a union, and providing all workers with the same civil liberties,” he said. “This strengthens the labor movement both by strengthening our economy and by revitalizing our moral compass.”
The Washington Immigration Reform Coalition, a local labor and faith-based consortium, recently held what Johnson described as an immigrant worker “street fair” in front of the Federal Building in downtown Seattle, effectively shutting down Second Avenue, a main through-street. Twenty-three people, including Johnson, were arrested and jailed overnight.
“It was fun,” said Johnson, “but it also sent a message that comprehensive immigration reform is the new civil rights struggle.”
The Anti-Defamation League, which has been at the forefront of civil rights since 1913, has mounted a vigorous campaign against the Arizona bill and in favor of comprehensive immigration reform.
Hilary Bernstein, executive director for the ADL’s Pacific Northwest chapter aligned people against illegal immigration with neo-Nazi groups who foment fear and hatred. Bernstein paraphrased that rhetoric by portraying illegal immigrants as threatening the “white way of life that we know here.”
In an effort to thwart “the growing wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in our country,” said Bernstein, “the ADL realizes that in addition to advocating for change at the policy level, we have to work to educate the next generation of voters and leaders…so that they are informed about the issues and so that they are uncorrupted by bias and stereotypical thinking.”
Bernstein led the group though an exercise from the ADL’s immigration curriculum, titled Huddled Mass or Second Class? and geared to elementary students, by looking at language and the cultural “framework” the ADL believes may contribute to fear and distrust in communities.
For HIAS’s Nezer, uncertainty and fear characterizes the lives of these workers and the lives of 4 million children. HIAS advocates a path to citizenship for all 11 million illegal immigrants that include “smart” enforcement — which targets people who pose a danger to the country — the funding of programs that integrate immigrants, and a streamlined permanent resident alien and visa program for family members of guest workers.
The “We Were Strangers, Too” Jewish campaign for immigration reform, a coalition of Jewish organizations that includes the ADL and the Jewish Labor Committee, the event’s host, works with interfaith groups and ethnic communities to pressure Congress to change the law, believing that this is an “ethical and moral imperative to get this changed.”
“We’ve never enforced the law,” Nezer said, referring to the recent enforcement actions. “We gave them jobs. No one went after employers. Never. The law was rarely enforced against them because we needed the labor. The Jewish community has the strongest support for immigration reform and all Jewish members of Congress, except for one, are in favor of it.”