This sermon was delivered at Rosh Hashanah (Day 2) services on Friday, September 22, 2017.
I came to this country in 1989 to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, after spending my first year in Israel. In between my year in Israel and coming to America, I went to the American Consulate to get my student visa, and had my interview with one of the consular officials. Some of you who are here today are familiar with this procedure, since so many people in our congregation work for the State Department. The official explained to me that I was not to work outside of the seminary in my first year of school, but that in my second year I could work in fields that correlated to my studies. In my second year in the USA I had my papers signed by the school’s registrar confirming that I could be employed, and went to teach religious school in a Manhattan synagogue. One day, I received a call from that religious school office saying that two officers from the Immigration and Naturalization Services had just come over to the synagogue and were on their way to see me. I was to wait for them in my dorm room to show all my papers and documents, proving that I could work in the United States. Apparently, Immigration had received an anonymous call saying that I was working illegally in this synagogue in Manhattan.
I knew everything was in order, and I waited in my dorm room. The two officers came to the seminary gates, a male and a female. They were led to my dorm room. They flashed their badges. Immigration and Naturalization Services, it read. They came in, and were rough and intimidating. They were shouting at me. I could not understand why they were treating me as if I had committed some kind of crime. I clumsily offered if they wanted to sit down, they declined and ordered me to bring out my passport and visa. I was nervous and intimidated, and with trembling hands gave them what they had asked for. As soon as they saw my papers, it became clear to them that they had received a false tip. There was nothing in my dorm room that could be considered even slightly suspicious, and my papers were absolutely in order. To my horror, at this point they bordered on abusive. The male officer brusquely asked that my papers be copied. I said that the only place we could copy the papers was in the library, hoping against hope that these officers would go away. I dreaded the idea of having to walk into the library flanked by two immigration officials. Well, he was not to be dissuaded. I grabbed my library and copier card, and the three of us went to the library, the female officer in front of me, the male officer flanking me in the back, giving the impression that I was being arrested. I felt the eyes of every student, faculty member, and personnel of the seminary on me. I copied all my papers, and they snatched it away from my hands. At the end of the ordeal, they were both visibly upset that there was nothing for them to do with me, and still very intimidating and rough. It was a horrible, unnerving experience.
I understand that I was one of the rarest cases that these officers had in their lives. Yet, I had a personal glimpse of how scary it can be to deal with seasoned officers who have seen everything. I understood how one might feel on the receiving end of an immigration raid. I understood the helplessness and fear one has when dealing with the immigration system in the US. I believe there is a lot of misinformation on the issue of immigration in this country, and today I will share with you a few personal insights.
I recognize and appreciate that there must be a lot of vetting of who comes into the United States. I know that our country, (and I am proud to be an American citizen, part of this wonderful country) is maligned in many countries in the world, and that there are people constantly trying to bring harm and destruction to us. I also know that the vetting process that immigrants go through is very thorough. It took me 9 years from the moment that I applied for my green card to the moment that I swore my allegiance to the USA as a citizen. It was a long process, and it only wasn’t longer because I was aided by lawyers throughout the process. The lawyers and the majority of the officials that I met through this process were highly competent people. It is just that immigration law in this country is complicated, antiquated, and impossible to truly enforce. The political discourse, which jumbles immigration, refugees, and work visas into one crisis, is very confusing and disheartening.
Our tradition, however, gives us an unequivocal mandate regarding the treatment of immigrants. In the Torah, the term used for immigrant is Ger, which is commonly translated as stranger. The Ger is someone who is not native to the tribes of Israel, but that for one reason or another joins the people of Israel. Just like contemporary immigrants and refugees, they joined the people of Israel because of family ties, love, better work opportunities, or a true love of God. A few verses from the Torah can inform our perspectives about immigration.
20. You shall not wrong an immigrant, nor oppress him; for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.
9. Also you shall not oppress an immigrant; for you know the heart of the immigrant, seeing that you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.
33. And if an immigrant dwells with you in your land, you shall not wrong them.
34. But the immigrant who dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the Eternal your God.
15. One law shall be both for you of the congregation, and also for the immigrant who dwells with you, an ordinance forever in your generations; as you are, so shall the immigrant be before the Eternal.
16. One Torah and one code shall be for you, and for the immigrant who dwells with you.
17. For the Eternal your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, mighty and awesome, which favors no person, nor takes bribes;
18. God executes the judgment of the orphan and widow, and loves the immigrant, giving them food and garment.
19. Love you therefore the immigrant; for you were immigrants in the land of Egypt.
Deuteronomy 24:17-19; 24:22
17. You shall not pervert the judgment of the immigrant, nor of the orphan; nor take a widow’s garment as a pledge;
18. But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the Eternal your God redeemed you there; therefore I command you to do this thing.
19. When you cut down your harvest in your field, and have forgotten a sheaf in the field, you shall not go again to fetch it; it shall be for the immigrant, for the orphan, and for the widow; that the Eternal your God may bless you in all the work of your hands.
22. And you shall remember that you were an immigrant enslaved in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this thing.
Take a moment to reflect on the passages you just heard. These are but a few verses, only in the five books of Moses, that inform our understanding of the treatment of immigrants and refugees. These verses demand empathy from us, demand that we do not forget our origins, and that we protect others in the way that we would have liked to be protected and cared for. From all these verses, we can infer that according to the Torah, Israelites must treat immigrants in a respectful and loving manner, because once we were immigrants. We had to immigrate to the land of Egypt, because of famine, and a lack of appropriate conditions to raise our families. In Egypt, we were treated poorly, we were enslaved. We built the big monuments that came to symbolize the prosperity of that country. The Torah reminds us, again and again, that we know the heart of the immigrant and the oppressed, and because of that we are to treat them as we would like to be treated. We have to provide for them, together with our own poor.
Immigration Law in the United States has always been complicated. Quotas established in the US Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924 strictly limited the number of immigrants who could be admitted to the United States each year. That act was tinged with racial undertones, trying to keep certain nationalities, and Jews, from immigrating to this country. From 1924 to 1965, the system of quotas meant to make it impossible for large migration. In the midst of these years, there was WWII, and the Holocaust. We, as Jews, were caught stranded in Europe, without a place to go. That is when the episode of the St. Louis happened.
Since Kristallnacht, the “Night of Broken Glass”on November 9–10, 1938, many Jews realized the danger they were in and wanted to emigrate. On May 13, 1939, the German transatlantic liner St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba. There were 937 passengers. Almost all were Jews fleeing from the Third Reich. The majority of the Jewish passengers had applied for US visas, and had planned to stay in Cuba only until they could enter the United States. The passengers held landing certificates and transit visas issued by the Cuban Director-General of Immigration. However, just a week before the ship sailed the Cuban president invalidated all recently issued landing certificates, because of a corruption scandal. When the St. Louis arrived in Havana harbor on May 27, the Cuban government sent away 908 Jewish passengers, refusing to admit them or to allow them to disembark from the ship. On June 2, the Cuban president ordered the ship out of Cuban waters.
Since they were so close to Miami, some passengers on the St. Louis cabled President Franklin D. Roosevelt asking for refuge. The State Department and the White House decided not to take extraordinary measures to permit the refugees to enter the United States. A State Department telegram sent to a passenger stated that the passengers must “await their turns on the waiting list and qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.”
In 1939, the annual combined German-Austrian immigration quota was 27,370 and was quickly filled. In fact, there was a waiting list of at least several years. US officials could only have granted visas to the St. Louis passengers by denying them to the thousands of German Jews placed further up on the waiting list. Public opinion in the United States, although ostensibly sympathetic to the plight of the refugees and critical of Hitler’s policies, continued to favor immigration restrictions. The Great Depression had left millions of people in the United States unemployed and fearful of competition for the scarce few jobs available. It also fueled antisemitism, xenophobia, nativism, and isolationism. A Fortune Magazine poll at the time indicated that 83 percent of Americans opposed relaxing restrictions on immigration. President Roosevelt could have issued an executive order to admit the St. Louis refugees, but this general hostility to immigrants, the gains of isolationist Republicans in the Congressional elections of 1938, and Roosevelt’s consideration of running for an unprecedented third term as president were among the political considerations that militated against taking an extraordinary step for an unpopular cause.
Roosevelt was not alone in his reluctance to challenge the mood of the nation on the immigration issue. Three months before the St. Louis sailed, Congressional leaders in both US houses allowed a bill to die in committee that would have admitted 20,000 Jewish children from Germany above the existing quota.
Following the US government’s refusal to permit the passengers to disembark, the St. Louis sailed back to Europe on June 6, 1939. The passengers did not return to Germany, however. They were distributed through many European nations, and 254 of the passengers perished in the Holocaust.
The episode of the St. Louis makes it clear that there was a lack of political will, coupled with laws that did not reflect the demand of the times, resulting in the mass extermination of Jews who were caught in Europe without the ability to save themselves and their families. It is important to notice that there were anti-Jewish, as well as anti-immigration sentiments in the nation, fueled by an economic crisis.
In 1965, the Immigration and Nationality Act created a different reality by eliminating the racialist immigration quotas that were set by the Immigration Act of 1924. Since 1965, many things have changed, and immigration again needs a re-focusing.
Right now, there is legislation introduced in the Senate called the RAISE act, (Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy Act). There are many things this bill will do, but there is one that feels very personal. The bill will remove pathways for parents, siblings and adult children of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents to apply for permanent lawful residency status in the U.S., limiting the family path to spouses and minor children only. If this would be the case when my mother moved here, she would never be able to have a green card or be a citizen of this country. Like her, there are many older immigrants that have their pensions from another country, and end up paying taxes both here and in their country of origin.
From what I learn from the Torah, and my experiences, I believe that our country needs to take a hard look at the motivations of new legislations, and the effect of limiting immigration in general. I do believe that Congress can find a path for immigration that will work to the benefit of our country, because I believe in this country, in our Government, and in the democratic process. And I believe that with courage our representatives can start finding real solutions that will open our country, wisely, to a path of sustainable immigration.
I hope that today I was able to give you a different perspective on issues of immigration. I hope that you take my words in the spirit in which they are meant, which is to show that behind big policies there are hundreds of thousands of individuals who, like me, have productive lives in this country we call home, but are afraid that things can change at the drop of a hat. I hope that my words today open a dialogue on issues of immigration, in our congregation and in our community.
May we be able to find positive pathways to make our country, our community, and our individual lives more productive and better in the coming year.
1) All the information about the transatlantic liner St. Louis came from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
2) All the information about the RAISE act came from the bill in Congress. ( S.354 — 115th Congress (2017-2018))