Encouraged by post-election indications that many congressional Republicans are now interested in a bipartisan approach on immigration reform, the American Jewish Committee is launching increased state and federal efforts to pass such legislation.
“Achieving immigration reform is one of our top priorities, and we are more confident now than ever before because we see Republicans and Democrats coming together to move this forward,” said John Rosen, executive director of the AJC’s Metro New Jersey Region.
Rosen spoke with NJ Jewish News on Nov. 14, the morning after his organization’s board was briefed on the campaign by Ann Schaffer, director of the AJC’s Belfer Center for American Pluralism. Her office is administering a $500,000 multi-year Ford Foundation grant to foster close ties between the Latino and Jewish communities.
State AJC leaders are teaming with business, church, and educational institutions for a gathering in March that will stress the economic benefits of immigration reform.
“We will try to bring to the table Chambers of Commerce, major employers, and trade associations from the major industries that employ documented and undocumented workers — construction, hospitality, health care, and food services,” Rosen said.
“Some of our elected officials in New Jersey are sitting on the fence and really need to see a benefit from immigration reform. We hope to walk away from the conference with solid partners in the business community who will then work to help promote immigration reform with four or five of our elected officials who may be open to immigration reform,” Rosen said. “It is a very compelling angle for many of our representatives in New Jersey.”
In addition, Rosen said he is hoping to enlist Christian leaders to the effort, some of whom have clashed with AJC and other groups by supporting divestment from Israel. “The idea is we want to build relationships with our Christian partners, and one area of common interest is in immigration reform,” he said.
Schaffer is prepared to make arguments of economic self-interest in support of immigration reform.
“We need to have a legal system that fulfills our economic needs by allowing a flow of laborers to come here, do the work, and go back again,” she said.
Schaffer said punitive measures against undocumented immigrants have often backfired.
In Alabama, an anti-immigrant law forced undocumented workers to flee the state, creating a severe shortage of farm laborers.
Restrictive legislation in Arizona triggered upward of $15 million in revenues lost as the result of a boycott by supporters of immigrant rights. Those states, along with others with repressive laws on the book, are being forced to spend millions to defend them in court.
And, Shaffer noted, such laws “are fostering stereotyping and anti-Latino attitudes” and “had a profound effect on the 2012 election.”
“AJC believes there should be an earned pathway to legalization for the 11 million immigrants who are in the country without permission,” Schaffer said, “and we should focus more on English and civics classes to enable greater assimilation into American society.”
AJC also supports, she said, “a fair and verifiable enforcement system, where we only deport those who have been involved in criminal action, and we don’t break up families…and we don’t have racial profiling of people by their names and skin color.”
Despite post-election analyses showing weak Republican support among Latino voters, some conservative voices remain sharply opposed to AJC-supported aspects of immigration reform.
Ira Mehlman, media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said his organization considers any path to legalizing undocumented immigrants as “amnesty for lawbreakers.”
“There will be a big push for amnesty now,” he predicted in a Nov. 19 phone interview with NJJN. “The Republicans seem to be running scared and think that giving into some kind of massive amnesty will ingratiate them with Latino voters.”
He views the debate as “a struggle between business interests and special interests on the Left versus middle-class Americans who are struggling to hold onto jobs and maintain their middle-class status.”
Still, AJC leaders believe their pro-reform position is growing stronger.
“I am very hopeful because I see signs of bipartisan support,” said Schaffer. “We are hoping for comprehensive reform, dealing with all the components together.
“It may not be everything we would like, but if we can take some concrete steps, I would encourage that. I feel it would be good for all Americans and certainly for the Jewish community.”