NCJW immigration panel decries “broken system”
President Obama’s recent speech on immigration — and his decision not to deport some 5 million people — most likely was driven, at least in part, by the advocacy efforts of groups such as the National Council of Jewish Women.
The Bergen County section, which held a forum on immigration reform last Tuesday, was in the process of sending a letter to the president when his formal statement was issued.
“It was a packed house,” Bea Podorefsky of Teaneck said of the forum, which drew 300 attendees. She and fellow NCJW member Joyce Kalman chaired the event.
We prepared a letter for attendees to sign urging the president to take some action,” she said, joking that one of the program’s panelists, Rabbi Greg Litcovsky, said she must have had a “connection” to a higher power, given the president’s subsequent action.
Ms. Podorefsky said that the forum’s goals were “to educate ourselves, to educate the community at large, and to work together with our coalition partners.” The coalition, created around last year’s NCJW forum on human trafficking, consists of 24 organizations, ranging from Project Sarah to the Palisades Park Senior Center.
The panel for this year’s program included Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle, Michael Wildes, Rabbi Litcovsky, and Vidalia Acevedo. Each was chosen to represent a different aspect of what panelists called “the broken immigration system.”
After the program, The Jewish Standard asked panelists to summarize their positions. These are their responses.
Good for the state
Assemblywoman Huttle of Englewood (D-37 Dist.) noted that while each legislator approaches immigration issues differently, “depending on their personal and family experiences, as well as who they represent in their districts, the general sentiment in New Jersey is supportive of immigrants who live, work, and go to school in our state.”
She said that while some states have taken a “very anti-immigration position … New Jersey has instead focused on protecting and enhancing opportunities for immigrants in our state, recognizing that they are members of our communities, critical participants in our workforce, and talented students in our education system.”
She said that the most significant issue under discussion is the status of undocumented immigrants who are living in communities without the protection of legal recognition.
“Because this can only be addressed on the federal level, New Jersey has taken steps to help bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows,” she said. “This includes allowing undocumented students who graduated from New Jersey high schools to attend college at an in-state rate” under a law she co-sponsored, known as the Dream Act.
In addition, legislative proposals are pending that would extend the Dream Act to cover tuition assistance for undocumented students and to create a type of driver’s license for undocumented residents.
Ms. Huttle said that documented immigrants also confront challenges, including learning English and becoming members of their larger communities. For this group, “there is also a lot we can do to make their transition easier and opportunities here more accessible,” she said. “The Korean Medical Program at Holy Name Medical Center is an example of a health care provider making sure immigrants are aware of screenings and information that is vital to cancer prevention and early detention.”
Ms. Huttle is sponsoring a bill that would require forms and materials for people with developmental disabilities to be printed in other languages.
“It is difficult enough for individuals with disabilities and their families to navigate the housing, health care, and educational programs available to them,” she said. “Doing this with a language barrier is nearly impossible. It is measures like this that go a long way to ease the immigrant experience in our state and make a real difference in the quality of life.
“The most significant issue I see is emerging immigrant communities working to become part of our larger Bergen County and New Jersey community,” she continued. “I work with members of immigrant groups that are not well represented in government and community organizations…. That representation is so critical to having a voice for their ethnic community, but also to bringing that group into our larger county and state framework.”
Ms. Huttle said that in Bergen County, election ballots are printed in three languages — English, Spanish, and Korean. In light of recent findings that a large number of new immigrants are attracted to the state, she suggested that “it is because New Jersey is already a very diverse state, offering new immigrants communities of residents who speak their language, know their culture, and will help them become acclimated and comfortable in their new country.”
This, she said, is good for New Jersey.
“Being a state that attracts new immigrants is beneficial for New Jersey. It means that we are bringing in more talent and fresh ideas. This is all important for our society to grow and thrive, culturally and economically. New Jersey is such a great state because of how much we have to offer, and our diversity is partially responsible for that. BergenPAC, for instance, has showcased every kind of performance group from an acclaimed Korean singer to Matisyahu. Those shows come to our state, and North Jersey in particular, because we have the communities to attend and support the events.”
She said that New Jersey’s economic well-being is enhanced by a strong immigrant presence. “We have seen, generation after generation, that immigrants bring energy and are willing to work hard to achieve their own American dream,” she said. “At the same time, I support making sure immigrants, just like all New Jersey residents, have access to education, health care, and employment opportunities that will allow them to have their American dream.”
She said that “while we still need President Obama and Congress to work together to create a long-term plan to address immigration in the United States, I support the president’s recent executive action. His plan will allow families to stay together, require undocumented immigrants to pay their taxes without fear of deportation, and shift the focus of deportation officials from hard-working immigrants to individuals who have committed crimes while in our country. Millions of undocumented residents with U.S. citizen children and families will be able to come out of the shadows and begin to really live their American dream.”
Looking at the law
Immigration attorney Michael Wildes of the Manhattan law firm Wildes and Weinberg said that the immigration issue “is a personal journey for my firm and I. My father represented John Lennon in the 1970s” in the successful suit disputing his deportation. “The very authority the president is using to take [his executive] action emanates from the scholarship of that case.”
Mr. Wildes, a former federal prosecutor as well as a former mayor of Englewood, said that with millions of undocumented aliens in the country, “there are not enough detention centers, handcuffs, beds, or the inclination to remove them.” As a former mayor, he said, he would rather work to develop the trust of the immigrant community.
Mr. Wildes pointed out that New Jersey has more than 550,000 undocumented aliens, the sixth highest number in the nation. He noted that the state receives some 50,000 immigrants annually. Yet despite this, New Jersey has not set up an office within the state government devoted to immigrant issues, as many other states have done.
“State leadership on crucial issues such as drivers licenses and police/community relations has been absent,” he said. “It’s important to get this right. It’s unsafe to have no intelligence as to who is here and not protect our nation properly.”
He cited the old argument that we must “lock down” the border first, and then deal with the people who are here.
“Our homeland is unsafe and our economy is in jeopardy,” he said. “We must confront both. Each has its own challenges.”
Calling for a partnership between municipal and community leaders, charitable institutions, local companies, and media, Mr. Wildes said that as a result of globalization, many sectors of the American economy are suffering major job losses.
“It’s a broken system,” he said, decrying the large number of foreign students “who can’t integrate into our economic system.”
Mr. Wildes, who teaches business immigration law at Cardozo Law School, suggested that “we need a start-up visa for entrepreneurs, with greater access for STEM students to get professional work visas.” Attracting such highly talented people, he said, would “be a huge feather in our cap.”
(STEM is an acronym referring to the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The acronym has been widely used in the immigration debate about access to United States work visas for immigrants who are skilled in these fields.)
Mr. Wildes said that Congress has to “step up and create a meaningful platform for American businesses and families to profit from this extraordinary tool of immigration. The greatest risk-takers and entrepreneurs come from the immigrant community,” he said, adding that luminaries such as Bill Gates have publicly affirmed the talent of this group. Indeed, he said, “they are responsible for scores of patents and end up employing Americans, too.”
“No doubt our safety and security were shattered 13 years ago but we can’t cripple ourselves in reconstituting [the country] without realizing that our nation was built on the backs of immigrants,” Mr. Wildes said.
Remembering that legacy “and creating a system that’s smart, lawful, and safe is what everybody wants.”
He suggested that we take actions such as creating visas for low-skilled workers, focusing more on dangerous criminals and terrorists than on minor violators, and helping employers in the area of compliance with immigration laws.
Mr. Wildes noted also that one implication of keeping people in the shadows is that they will tend to avoid law enforcement authorities. That means that witnesses to crimes will not speak up, and that victims themselves may fail to cooperate with law enforcement.
He said that he is “sorely disappointed in the media, which is allowing the dialogue on immigration to deteriorate.” He stressed that we must not allow the media to feed into the myth that immigrants bring to our shores “only Ebola or ISIS.”
Calling Jews “the biblical people of the passport,” Mr. Wildes said that we of all people should appreciate immigration, and that as Americans, we must prize our legacy of hospitality.
He is glad that President Obama finally “stepped up and did the right thing,” he said. “Eleven presidents in the last half-century exercised the same discretion.”
Vidalia Acevedo, director of the multicultural outreach program for the Center for Hope and Safety (which until recently was called Save our Sisters), said that when she works with victims of domestic violence, “many of the clients that I see are immigrant women from various backgrounds. These women face a number of issues, challenges, and barriers that keep them from seeking help.”
For example, she said, their abusers’ constant threat of deportation and their fear of being separated from their children keep immigrant women from leaving or reporting abuse. In addition, “language barriers limit their ability to inquire about and obtain information and resources, and economics plays a major role in these women remaining in abusive relationships, since they are unable to work and have no support from family or friends in this country,” Ms. Acevedo said. “They are usually isolated and the husband is the only means of support.”
However, notwithstanding these challenges, “immigrant women who are victims of domestic violence and [are] married to a citizen or legal permanent resident can get help by self-petitioning for residency under the Violence Against Women Act. They can obtain permanent resident status without the knowledge, cooperation, or participation of their abusive partner. Further, an undocumented immigrant victim of domestic violence can qualify for a U-visa when they can demonstrate that they suffered substantial physical or mental abuse as a result of domestic violence or other crimes and are helpful in the investigation and prosecution of the incident/crime.”
Ms. Acevedo said that even after they leave a violent environment and obtaining legal status, immigrant victims still face many challenges and hardships. “[They] frequently have to work very long hours for very low hourly wages and thus remain living in poverty.” As a result, they are unable to gain access to safe, affordable housing and child care.
“They must rely on public transportation, travel long distances, and walk through deserted areas, putting them at a higher risk of becoming victims of crime,” she said. “These women also frequently suffer from poor health because they cannot afford proper health care. This impoverished existence makes it very difficult to become self-sufficient, especially when they have minor children, and places them at risk of returning to the abusers or potentially making other survival decisions that may not necessarily be in their best interest.”
Ms. Acevedo — who helps these women create a safety plan, including strategies for leaving an abusive environment for a safe, protective one — also provides case management, domestic violence counseling, advocacy with police and courts, distribution of information about their legal options, and resource and community referrals.
The spiritual side
“It was a blessing to be part of it,” said Rabbi Greg Litcovsky of the program, adding that each of the panelists “is doing God’s work.”
Rabbi Litcovsky, the spiritual leader of Temple Emanu-El of Essex in Livingston, noted Jews’ obligation to “bring justice into the world and do our best.” He cited the teaching of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, who said that being Jewish means not being in awe of the world but recognizing that it is not as it should be and doing our best to improve it.
With millions of undocumented immigrants in the shadows, Rabbi Litcovsky said, we must remember the biblical teaching to care for the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger.
“We of all people know what it means to live in the shadows,” he said. “The immigrant story is the Jewish story. This is a moral obligation, to work together with other communities of faith and the immigrant community to make sure a very broken immigration system is fixed.”
As part of the Reform movement’s Rabbis Organizing Rabbis initiative, Rabbi Litcovsky worked with other Reform rabbis this summer to help 57-year-old immigrant Catalino Guerrero fight deportation. He said that when Mr. Guerrero, who has lived in the United States with his wife and four children since 1991, applied to the United States for asylum in 2009, his application exposed him to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Despite ill health and having no family in Mexico, he was taken from his New Jersey home and detained.
According to a statement from the Religious Action Center, “he was only allowed to return to his family because he signed a document — which he couldn’t read — saying he would voluntarily self-deport within a matter of months.”
Learning of his plight, the Reform rabbis made calls to ICE and co-signed a letter to the agency. Meeting with Mr. Catalino and his wife, as well as with other interested members of the community, the rabbis managed to win a year-long stay of removal for the immigrant.
“The immigrant story is the story of families being separated who want to stay together,” he said. “My great grandparents were no different than Catalino. They came for the same reason.”
He said that not only does the Reform movement fight for legislation, it also “shifted our strategy to help individuals across the country. Sixty of us made calls on behalf of immigrants on the deportation list. It’s the audacity to hope — but not just sit around and wait for miracles but make the change in the world, go after systemic injustices.”
The rabbi said that one problem is “the mythology we tell ourselves, that we came legally and worked our way up.” That, he said, is not entirely true.
Rabbi Litcovsky said he “applauds the president” for his recent executive action “in light of Congress not acting on our broken immigration system.” Still, he said, he recognizes the need for Congress to move on this.
“It’s a big win, but Congress needs to act to bring justice into our system,” Rabbi Litcovsky said. Echoing the president’s words, he said the focus should be on “felons, not families.”
Ms. Podorefsky said there was a very long Q & A session, “with very good questions.” She added that in the aftermath of President Obama’s planned executive action, NCJW will move forward on the issue, looking for a place “where we can teach young immigrants English and where we can help them work on their papers. They have to do a lot of paperwork, and they can’t afford lawyers.”
She said NCJW supports reforms that will provide opportunities for hard-working undocumented immigrants who have been paying taxes to earn legal status and citizenship, and expedite family reunification by reducing waiting periods that keep immigrant families apart.