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Task Force Tackles Immigration Issues

November 22, 2011 By:
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Refugees from Bhutan, now living in Philadelphia, experience their first Thanksgiving dinner, courtesy of HIAS. Photos by Greg Bezanis

Plates full of Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing were placed alongside Asian cuisine and kugel on a buffet table stretched across the gymnasium in the Old Pine Community Center in Society Hill. Dancers performed as Nepali music -- folk tunes along with modern, techno-infused tracks -- blared from two speakers, reverberating off the hardwood floors.

For most of the 100 or so refugees in the room -- ethnic Nepalis of all ages who were forced to leave their native kingdom of Bhutan -- it was their first-ever taste of one of America's most popular holidays.
 
"Our people should know how to acclimate and integrate. I encouraged all our people to come," said 29-year-old Parangrush "P.K." Subedi, who fled his homeland with his family back in 1994 and spent years in a refugee camp in Nepal.
 
Now, armed with a master's degree in public health, he works for HIAS and Council Migration Service of Philadelphia, which organized the Nov. 20 program. Subedi helps the group meet the needs of the Nepali refugee community in Philadelphia, which numbers about 1,000, only 15 percent of whom are HIAS clients.
 
HIAS wasn't alone in planning the feast. Volunteers from Society Hill Synagogue and Main Line Reform Temple -- which maintains a warehouse of goods it donates to refugee families -- pitched in with the cooking, as did members of Old Pine Church.
 
HIAS has existed nationally since 1881 and is the undisputed Jewish leader regarding immigration, both in terms of providing services and advocating policy. Synagogues and other Jewish organizations have gotten involved more recently, in a variety of ways, with HIAS and the immigration issue more broadly.
 
But now, with immigration once again in the national spotlight, many groups say it's time to intensify Jewish advocacy on the issue. To that end, HIAS of Philadelphia is working with the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia to create an inter-agency, local Jewish task force on immigration.
 
Other groups that have signed on include the Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN), the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League.
 
The task force has met only once so far and hasn't yet codified a mission statement, though they have discussed major goals, including raising awareness in the community and advocating on policies related to immigration.
 
The effort is, at least in part, a reaction to the introduction of more than a dozen bills in Harrisburg that seek to make it more difficult for undocumented immigrants to work and live in the state.
 
It's also a response to the heated tone of the national debate over reforming federal immigration policy as states such as Arizona and Mississippi have pushed through controversial and far-reaching measures.
 
"What is at stake is really the very foundation of who we are as a nation," said Judith Bernstein-Baker, executive director of HIAS, which for most of its history served Jewish immigrants but now mostly works with non-Jews. "If states set their own policies, I can't imagine what this country will look like. It's anarchy if each state is going to make its own law."
 
Bernstein-Baker and others argue that immigration is clearly a Jewish issue because the idea of welcoming the stranger comes from classic Jewish sources.
 
In addition, they point to the fact that most American Jews can trace their roots to the massive wave of Eastern European Jewish immigrants that came to these shores between the 1880s and 1920s.
 
Pennsylvania has played an outsized role in the national immigration debate. In 2006, frustrated by the lack of a coherent federal policy, Hazelton's Republican Mayor Lou Barletta -- now a member of Congress -- pushed through a measure that would fine businesses and landlords for hiring or renting property to illegal immigrants.The Hazelton ordinance is still being litigated in federal court.
 
But it's another legislative package, dubbed National Security Begins at Home and spearheaded by State Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican representing Butler County, close to Pittsburgh, that has thrust the Keystone State back in the spotlight. A few of the measures have begun moving through the legislative process, though none has become law.
 
One of Metcalfe's proposed measures would require anyone 18 or older to verify their legal status in order to receive public benefits. Another bill targets employers who have knowingly hired an undocumented immigrant, seeking to impose stiff fines.
 
The Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, which lobbies in Harrisburg, isn't directly involved in the new task force but has been campaigning against the package, taking the position that immigration policy needs to be set in Washington, D.C. Metcalfe and others counter that they're tired of waiting for the federal government to take the lead.
 
Most of the measures being debated focus on illegal immigrants, so they wouldn't apply to HIAS' regular clients, including the Nepali refugees.
 
Tamara Cohen, a Reconstructionist Rabbinical College student who is interning with HIAS and working on expanding the Jewish task force, said the group hopes to combat the perception that there are "good immigrants" and "bad immigrants."
 
"We are trying to reject that division," Cohen said, adding that a hostile political climate hurts all immigrants and that some proposed bills in the state could affect legal immigrants as well.
 
For example, House Bill 888, which has not moved out of committee, seeks to make English the state's official language: It's not clear what the impact of the law would be, though it could make it more difficult for state and local governments to provide assistance in multiple languages.
 
Bernstein-Baker said that there is a consensus in the Jewish community on the need for federal reform as opposed to a state-by-state solution. She also supports a solution, similar to ideas put forward by former Sen. Arlen Specter and President George W. Bush, that would create a strict but fair path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.
 
William Wanger, president of the regional chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition, cautioned that immigration is a complex issue with many things to take into consideration.
 
Most Republican Jews, he said, are mindful of the role that immigration has played for American Jewry and the country at large. Many in the GOP oppose open borders and are concerned with national security, but that doesn't make them immigrant bashers, said the attorney.
 
"These are the hard decisions that we have to make. Look, it sounds trite at this point, but we have to protect our borders because bad people are trying to get into the country," he said, adding that he is opposed to any kind of massive deportation. "Nobody wants to be accused of being a bigot or a person who is not compassionate and not caring and lacks a certain memory."
 
Bernstein-Baker said that she, too, believes borders need to be secure, but the questions remain: What is the best means to do that, and what does the country do with the millions who have been in this country for years, paying taxes and contributing to society, but live in fear.
 
"What are we going to do with them? Are they going to remain part of the shadows?"
 
Task Force co-chair Judith Ginsburg, who sits on the board of JCRC and chairs Federation's Women of Vision Foundation, said the task force is sure to focus on advocacy in Harrisburg and Washington, D.C.
 
Said Ginsburg, "It's a moral imperative that the Jewish community remain involved in positive immigration reform."

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