Statement of Gideon Aronoff, President & CEO, HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society
Press Conference on Postville Immigration Raid (July 2, 2008)
For HIAS and the Jewish community, working to assist refugees and other immigrants, and to promote welcoming policies at the federal, state and local levels, is an important community priority. This stems from the Jewish community’s essential and enduring identification with immigrants -- both current Jewish immigrants and immigrants of other backgrounds. The reasons for this identification are many, but include:
• The centrality of the biblical commandment to welcome, protect, and love the stranger;
• The lessons of thousands of years of Jewish history where Jews faced expulsion and migration due to anti-Semitism, violence, and poverty and have sought security, freedom and opportunity in new lands;
• The core notion that “we are our brother’s keepers” and that the Jewish community has a moral and ethical obligation to be concerned about the vulnerable of all communities -- certainly including migrants, both legal and unauthorized.
One area where HIAS and many others in the Jewish community have focused in recent years has been to call for an end to the current defacto illegal immigration system. This system only results in chaos and death on the borders, exploitation and insecurity in communities throughout the country, and haphazard state and local laws. Instead of this illegality, we are calling for federal immigration reform that will:
• deal humanely with the 12 million undocumented immigrants offering a path to citizenship;
• create new legal avenues for immigrant workers;
• address the unconscionable backlogs in family immigration programs;
• develop border and interior enforcement programs that will actually work while still honoring core American moral and legal values; and
• promote citizenship and the integration of newcomers.
The recent situation in Postville is a clarion call for immigration reform. Only through this approach can we humanely and effectively end illegal immigration.
The current system undermines legal workers, both native born and immigrant, and depresses wages at the lower end of the economic spectrum.
The system denies employers who want to play by the rules access to reasonable numbers of legal workers by limiting low- skilled worker visas to only 5,000 a year.
And, the system empowers those employers who seek to abuse the powerlessness of undocumented immigrant workers who have no one to turn to for protection.
Our government’s current approach -- in Postville, and as recently as last week in Houston and yesterday in Annapolis -- relies on raids, detention, criminal prosecution of undocumented immigrant workers, and deportation. This enforcement-only approach creates massive human suffering, separation of families, and economic dislocation.
A few facts about the Postville raid and prosecutions.
• 389 workers were arrested in the raid and 270 were prosecuted for the felonies of identity theft and social security fraud instead of being immediately deported as undocumented workers. Workers were pressured to plead guilty to the social security charge and serve five months in jail to avoid many months of detention and a possible two- year sentence for identity theft.
• During prisoners’ jail terms, their families back at home, are left with no means of support.
• These ordinary workers were reportedly held in chains and shackles like dangerous criminals.
• Court appointed lawyers reportedly were overwhelmed by the volume of cases and the short time frame for processing the workers before being sentenced.
• Women, who were released from detention to care for children, are forced to wear ankle bracelets, cannot work, are destitute, and have no way to pay for rent, food or other essentials while they wait for ultimate deportation.
These conditions clearly violate the core human and religious values of our country.
Ultimately, these raids simply create a false impression of action since they cannot possibly respond to the massive problem of undocumented migration. Some immigrants will be scared away, at least from individual communities. But the economic and social forces driving this migration are too strong to be countered by the prosecution of a few hundred Mexican and Guatemalan workers in Iowa, or the deportation of a few hundred undocumented workers nationwide. They are a drop in the bucket.
The inhumanity and ineffectiveness of this approach are clear, and are contrary to American national interests. Congress and the new President must work together quickly to create an immigration system worthy of our great country, and end the current activities that lull us into believing these serious problems are being solved.