Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Small Step Forward

Almost obsessively, the Torah returns and returns again to the topic of the strangers among us, admonishing us to be kind and generous with aliens in our midst both because we ourselves were once oppressed outsiders in a land not our own and also as part of the general obligation the Torah imposes on the faithful to be charitable to the disadvantaged, the distressed, the disenfranchised, and the distressed. The question of why the Torah can’t let it go, can’t just say it once and be done with it (as it says once and is then done with other commandments we have come to think of as central to our Jewish way of life), can’t just issue the command and expect the faithful to respond obediently to an eminently reasonable divine behest to be compassionate and humane…that is one of the great riddles the Toray gently lays down for the ruminative contemplation of its students.

Perhaps it has to do with the concept of invisibility. When Ralph Ellison published his masterwork, Invisible Man, in 1952, he was writing formally about the lot of black people in America. But in a less formal way he was also writing about the way society first belittles, then marginalizes, then eventually condemns to invisibility those to whom the members of its dominant classes have no real idea how to relate. Like all great books, Ellison’s is both plot-specific and plot-general, both about the people it depicts and also about the world, about society, about people whom the author does not pause to mention at all but whose stories are nevertheless embedded (invisibly!) in the warp and woof of the narrative. I suppose most of my readers will have read Ellison’s book somewhere along the way, even if only as an assignment in a high school English class. If you've never read it, it’s still worth reading even all these years later, still insightful and still very interesting. But I mention it today not specifically to recommend a good book, but because that concept of invisibility-in-full-sight seems relevant both to understanding why the Torah returns over and over to the concept of being considerate and sympathetic to the strangers in our midst—because to be kind to such people one must first learn to see them—and also to an issue facing our country as the year draws to a close.

All my readers know, I think, that I find the lot of illegal aliens in our midst as intolerable as the issue of how to resolve the problem appears to be intractable. On the one hand, we are not a nation given to coddling lawbreakers, which is by definition what illegal immigrants are: people who have declined to play by the rules and who have simply shoved their way to the front of the line, thus ignoring both our laws and those patiently waiting their turn to apply for legal residency. On the other hand, however, is the problem not as it exists in some sort of public-policy vacuum but in the real world of flesh-and-blood men and women. According to the Center for Immigration Studies, a non-profit research organization, there are currently about eleven million foreigners living illegally in the United States, about three-quarters of them from Mexico, Central America, and South America.

That staggering, almost unfathomable number, cannot be passed by lightly: we are talking about an incredibly large number of people who collectively have created a concomitantly huge number of social problems both for the citizenry and for foreigners residing legally in our midst. Some of these are so well known that they hardly bear repeating. Illegals work, but they do not pay taxes and thus do not shoulder their fair share of the costs connected with government services from which they profit. They are the regular and repeated victims of crime, but they cannot phone the police for help when they are robbed or assaulted. They drive, but they are mostly afraid to apply for driver’s licenses and thus, generally speaking, fail to carry even the minimal insurance that the government requires drivers all to carry. They become ill like the rest of us too, of course, but they rarely carry health insurance because the forms they would have to fill out to apply for coverage solicit information that would risk identifying them as illegals. And, if their parents dare send them, the children of illegals attend schools in which they are obliged constantly to dissemble lest their lack of status be uncovered and the government duly notified. One thing I believe all Americans can easily agree on is that the situation as it has evolved to this point is intolerable from a dozen different standpoints and must somehow be resolved.

Nor is there any point in putting the blame on the government for having failed to prevent illegal immigration in the first place. It is undoubtedly true that increased funding for better border patrolling could have stemmed the flow of illegals over these many years that the problem has taken to develop to its current gargantuan dimensions. There are probably a lot of things we could have done to prevent this situation from evolving as it has, actually, but wasting time now on recriminative speculation about what we could possibly once have done will not move us any closer to resolving the issue. And resolve it we must! It is simply intolerable for us to accept as a permanent feature of life in these United States that millions upon millions of people can be assaulted with impunity, swindled without the fear of subsequent punishment, and allowed to cost the taxpayers uncountable millions while being unable to contribute legally to the coffers they themselves help annually to drain.

Two weeks ago, the House of Representatives voted by the underwhelming margin of 216 to 198 to pass the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors act. Usually referred to by its acronym as the DREAM act, this legislation was sponsored by two Democrats and a Republican and addresses specifically young people who (a) arrived illegally in the United States when they were still younger than sixteen years of age, (b) have lived here for at least five years, (c) have received a high school diploma or its equivalent, (d) are at the present time younger than thirty-five, and (e) are known to be of good moral character. In other words, the DREAM act is an attempt to deal with the specific class of young people who came here illegally as children, but who have lived here for a serious portion of their lives, have been educated here, and who have not gotten into any sort of trouble during their years in America. The bill does not, however, give these people a free pass to citizenship. What it would do, however, is to grant such young people six years during which to attend college or to serve in the United States military. And then, at the end of those six years, supposing an eligible young person completes a significant portion of his or her post-secondary education or military service and is not convicted of a major crime (or any crime connected with drug use), then such a person would be eligible not for citizenship but for the kind of legal permanent residency that could eventually lead to citizenship. This is hardly a free pass. But it is a thoughtful way to deal with one small part of the larger issue, the part involving young people with limited or no ties at all to any other homeland and whose foreign citizenship is more a factor of where their parents grew up than of their own lives or cultural attachments or emotional allegiances. It is a small step forward towards resolving a problem that all goodhearted citizens must insist be resolved one way or the other. And I personally think it is worthy legislation that deserves to become law.

On September 21, the Senate failed to muster the sixty votes it would have taken to end the filibuster of the bill. (The vote was 56-43 to continue the progress of the bill.) The following day, on September 22, Richard Durbin, the Democratic senator from Illinois, introduced the bill again, this time acting together with Republican Richard Lugar, the senior senator from Indiana, and Patrick Leahy, the Democratic senior senator from Vermont. The bill was then defeated in the Senate for a second time. On November 16, President Obama announced his intention to introduce the bill into the House of Representative where, as noted above, it passed. The wrangling in the Senate now continues with the bill being tabled, then re-introduced, then threatened with an ongoing filibuster, then withdrawn for consideration some other time (but presumably within the life span of the 111th Congress), the re-proposed. The bottom line is that either the bill will pass within the next week or so or it won’t. I understand the unwillingness of some people to grant free rides to people who snuck on the bus without first bothering to buy a ticket. But I also see the wisdom of trying to begin to solve this major issue for our country by addressing the case of children caught up in the web of illegality and subterfuge because of other people’s bad decisions. It isn’t much. It barely even qualifies as a partial solution to the bigger question. (It is estimated this legislation could clear the way to citizenship for no more than 13,000 of the eleven million illegals in our midst.) But I believe this is a step in the right direction. It is kind. It is generous. And it is fully in harmony with the Torah’s endlessly repeated injunction to behave charitably, humanely, and benevolently with the strangers in our midst.

One caveat, however: I do not believe it would be appropriate or right to allow young people who become citizens under the DREAM act to be allowed later on to sponsor their parents’ immigration if those parents came here illegally. For adult illegals, a process has to be evolved on a separate plane of discourse that leads either to their return to their native lands or to the acquisition of American citizenship in a way that conforms to the laws of our country and does not insult the dignity of all those who have immigrated here legally and by the book.

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