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Strangers Shall Be to You as Citizens: Our Moral Mandate Today

Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz and Eddie Chavez Calderon leading a protest outside of Senator Sinema's office, Dec. 2022. (Shmuly Yanklowitz)
Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz and Eddie Chavez Calderon leading a protest outside of Senator Sinema's office, Dec. 2022. (Shmuly Yanklowitz)

When Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Thom Tillis’s piece of lame-duck immigration legislation died in the Senate last week, I felt a great deal of disappointment, combined with a measure of relief. This was because the policy they proposed made what I, and Jews around the country, found to be an unacceptable compromise of Torah values. 

While the bill sought to give full citizenship to the roughly 1.8 million DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients, it would have done so at the expense of current and future asylum seekers, by extending Title 42. 

Created by the Trump administration, Title 42 uses foreign countries’ Covid-19 protocols as an excuse for blocking asylum seekers from entering the country. Having seen the Republican Party resist vaccine and masking requirements, we can clearly see that citing insufficient Covid policies in order to keep asylum seekers out is rooted in nothing but xenophobia.

We understand the senators’ approach of wanting a bipartisan piece of legislation to secure citizenship for Dreamers, but extending Title 42 goes too far, with people’s lives at stake fleeing violence and poverty — not to mention that people have the human right and international legal right to claim asylum. Instead, a more reasonable concession by Democrats could be to invest in border security, if it will get enough Republicans on board with giving citizenship to Dreamers. 

Uri L’Tzedek rallied around 70 national organizations in support of a path that benefits Dreamers without unfairly punishing asylum seekers. Among these are HIAS, Bend the Arc and the National Council of Jewish Women. We’ve met with Senator Sinema’s team in Phoenix, and we just advocated in DC as well. 

The Jewish community should be united on this front because we have been immigrants for just about our entire history and the Torah teaches us to live with that in mind. As it says in the Book of Leviticus (19:34–35), “When strangers reside with you in your land, you shall not wrong them. The strangers who reside with you shall be to you as your citizens; you shall love each one as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” The imperative is not just to love and defend the stranger (immigrant or refugee) but to ensure their citizenship which ensures their rights and security.

Jewish Immigrants to America in 1900. (Wikimedia Commons)

These are principles we need to keep in mind as we wait for the next attempt at legislation. They should inspire us to: 

  1. Continue to educate our communities, listening first-hand, when possible, to the individuals affected. 
  2. Offer high levels of humanitarian relief. We invite delegations to join us at the border to roll up their selves (or, for those who can’t make the trip, to send supplies). As Title 42 is lifted, we’re going to see a massive increase in migrants crossing the border who have very high needs. 
Migrants receiving holiday presents from our humanitarian-relief work in 2020. (Shmuly Yanklowitz)

Given the national polarization we’re experiencing in politics, it’s difficult to identify a clear path forward. And yet, on a policy level, we must continue to strive for a bipartisan solution that both gives dignity to immigrants and asylum seekers and strengthens border security. And, as we seek a compromise, we must not forget our non-negotiables: We need to get full citizenship to Dreamers, and we cannot stand for the rejection of our asylum-seeking neighbors. In the meantime, we need to ensure they have clothes, tampons, diapers, food, medicine and all other basic essentials to survive in their perilous journeys as undocumented people under scrutiny. To be a Jew means to see these vulnerable people and to walk with them.

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.