On Sukkot, learning to welcome the stranger
Sukkot is a time to recall the fragility of life when we were wandering in the desert without a permanent roof over our heads. And it is a time to rejoice that we have a homeland in Israel and a home in America.
We in New Jersey are grateful that, despite economic uncertainty, we are doing well and are part of a strong and caring Jewish community. We are also blessed because here in New Jersey, as in Israel, we are surrounded by a diversity of cultures, races, and religions. The dividends of diversity are apparent, from great restaurants, music, religious, and cultural festivals to the energy and ingenuity in our work force.
Did you know that 20 percent of workers in our state are foreign born? Imagine: One in five came to New Jersey from abroad. Did you know that over 40 percent of those with advanced degrees in science and engineering come from abroad because New Jersey’s pharma and high tech industries need their talent? Did you know that over 16,000 migrant workers pick fruit and vegetables on NJ farms; and thousands more work as landscapers, serve in restaurants and hotels, or are employed as nannies? Most came to the United States on valid student and work visas. But some have stayed on or crossed our borders illegally to do work that needs to be done, work that others either cannot or do not want to do. The bottom line is that immigration brings diversity, vitality, creativity, and economic stimulus to our state.
As we start a New Year and approach a national election, let us put reform of our broken immigration system back on the front burner. What can we do to fix what is broken?
The American Jewish Committee has proposed “comprehensive” immigration reform, which includes the following:
First, we want our borders to be secure, to keep out those who want to do us harm.
Second, we need a flexible way to determine how many workers we need in all industries to keep America competitive. In other words, a flexible mechanism for admission to the United States that anticipates labor market needs and responds to the global competition for talent and labor. Recently, 150 college presidents signed a letter to President Obama supporting visa reform to grant green cards to international students with advanced degrees in technical fields. They basically agreed with Bill Gates, who said “when an immigrant comes to America to study, pays tuition and lives here, learns English, graduates with a Master’s Degree in any scientific or technological field….staple a green card to the diploma!” Currently many of these graduates want to work here or dream of starting a business here but are turned away, and their fine American education benefits Canada or their country of origin rather than our nation.
Third, welcome immigrant workers and their families and integrate them into the fabric of American life. Isn’t this what we wanted for our own families who came from Russia during the pogroms, Europe during World War II and, more recently, for the Jews from the former Soviet Union who settled here?
Fourth, chart a fair but vigorous path to citizenship for law-abiding undocumented residents. The path would include learning English. The classes offered in New Jersey are overbooked and overcrowded. According to a Pew Hispanic Center survey, 96 percent of Latino immigrants believe that teaching English to their children is “very important.” The path should also require that immigrants pay fines and back taxes. The Social Security Administration estimates that three-quarters of undocumented workers actually pay payroll taxes. They pay $6-7 billion in Social Security annually with no expectation of getting anything back.
This is not simple stuff; but it is attainable. Let’s demand from our governor, members of Congress, and both presidential candidates that they work together to do what is best for the greater community and the economy. Ask them to set aside differences. Ask them to control future flow, allowing in workers from all sectors as needed. Ask them to provide a path to citizenship for those who are undocumented but have committed no other crime. Finally, ask them to help all immigrants integrate by providing classes in English and citizenship.
On Sukkot, I have always invited Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah into my sukka. This year I will also invite a foreign born scientist, a nanny, and a farm worker. May we all live together in New Jersey in peace and prosperity in 5773.