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Forum tries to unravel the immigration ‘mess’
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Forum tries to unravel the immigration ‘mess’

At Livingston temple, small audience hears range of big problems

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

At an Oct. 3 forum on immigration sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, panelists were, from left, immigration lawyer Ryan Stark Lillienthal, Melanie Nezer of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and West Orange Chief of Police James P. Abbott. Photo
At an Oct. 3 forum on immigration sponsored by the American Jewish Committee, panelists were, from left, immigration lawyer Ryan Stark Lillienthal, Melanie Nezer of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and West Orange Chief of Police James P. Abbott. Photo

Introducing a panel on immigration that drew only 12 people to a Livingston synagogue, Allyson Gall wondered if the turnout wasn’t indicative of the Jewish community’s level of interest in the topic.

“I’m surprised the Jewish community is not more engaged in this issue,” said Gall, NJ area director of the American Jewish Committee, which organized the Oct. 3 discussion at Temple B’nai Abraham. “Is your nanny legal? We are all stakeholders in this issue.”

And as if to prove her point, one woman in the audience would say that she was surprised to learn that it is against the law to hire unauthorized immigrants to do her gardening.

The panelists all suggested the current immigration system is dysfunctional — or a “mess,” as a flyer for the event declared.

West Orange Chief of Police James P. Abbott described a system in which every community makes its own policies on an ad hoc basis, so that his town and nearby Morristown might have totally different policies. He condemned the lack of guidance coming from Congress.

Princeton immigration lawyer Ryan Stark Lillienthal pointed out the looming hurdles for today’s would-be immigrants, and the stark difference between that and his own family’s immigration experience as they fled Nazi Europe.

“Today, we conduct home raids to find illegal immigrants,” he said, and described a recent terrifying and manipulative raid into a private home in Trenton.

By contrast, his relatives were naturalized with little difficulty, despite one grandmother who couldn’t speak English and told an interviewer that she had committed five crimes (she thought she had been asked how many children she had).

And yet, while there is broad agreement on what would constitute sound immigration policy, politics makes it impossible to implement such a policy, said Melanie Nezer, senior director of U.S. Programs and Advocacy at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

“We have broad agreement that we need to secure borders, legalize immigration, and integrate new immigrants into society,” she said, “but politically we’re in a very hard place. No one wants to touch it.”

Nezer said that some realities are at odds with political platforms. On one end of the spectrum are unskilled workers, for whom there are few visas but a great demand for their services.

“People say, ‘Kick them out,’ but who has not hired a nanny or a gardener or gone to a restaurant?” Nezer said. “And every time there is a raid on a farm, powerful constituents say, ‘Don’t enforce the law; we need these workers.’”

At the other end of the spectrum are the many highly skilled workers who earn advanced degrees in the United States — and then are promptly sent out of the country.

“We should be stapling green cards to their diplomas,” Nezer said.

While Abbott looks to Congress, and Nezer advocates comprehensive immigration reform, Ryan, who serves on the board of the New Jersey Immigration Policy Network, believes they will both be disappointed in the near future.

“I think the next Congress will be mean-spirited toward immigrants,” he said, predicting further attempts to criminalize immigration rather than to streamline naturalization. He said he thinks progress instead will be made when various state policies come before the Supreme Court.

The bottom line? According to Gall: “We have to have a flexible way to decide who and how many people to let in.”

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