Friday, April 21, 2006

Jewish Community Stands Together on Immigration Issue

Jewish Journal North of Boston

April 21, 2006 copyright 2006 DBLevy

Jewish Community Stands Together on Immigration Issue


Before the Easter-Passover recess, two weeks of acrimonious debate in Congress seemed to show that supporters of deporting illegal aliens and criminalizing unlawful entry held about half the votes — and generated more than half the sound and fury. I hope that will change significantly when Congress reconvenes.

Why? Because new polls show that the American people are more realistic about the deportation issue, less judgmental about those who break the law to enter the country, and don’t want to make felons of 12 million illegal aliens. A solid majority also believes that undocumented workers (illegal immigrants) should have a chance at gaining full U.S. citizenship.

A CBS News poll found 74 percent favoring legal status for those who have lived in the United States for at least five years — provided they speak English, pay a fine and any back taxes, and have no criminal record. (My guess is that over 90 percent of American Jews would support similar measures.)

Seems to me that two less theoretical issues bother lots of Americans. Many complain about the omnipresence of the Spanish language (reminders exist on every product sold and most corporate telephone answering systems) and whether people from south of the border will segregate themselves in American barrios instead of fully embracing and participating in the fabric and language of America.

A personal story: In 1960, my nickname was Buddy. I, poor as a synagogue mouse, got married, and after the party my bride and I rushed to count the much-needed cash presents.

One sizeable bank check stood out. It read, “Pay to Buddha Leavitt.”

After saying that strange name out loud a few times, I realized it was my nickname with a Yiddish accent. My maternal grandmother, Nellie Lewis, with her limited English and Yiddish accent, bought the check at a local bank and, mainly due to my bubbe’s English language deficit, morphed Buddy Levy to Buddha Leavitt. (We smiled and gratefully cashed the check.)

Fifty years after arriving in the United States, my bubbe’s English proficiency was almost nil, her accent heavy. Nevertheless, this non-English speaking Jewish immigrant fought hard for her rights. She was one of the last holdouts in Boston’s West End, shouting from her window at city officials when they, in the name of urban renewal (now acknowledged as a big mistake and gross injustice), authorized the tearing down of so many buildings. She owned that four-story building and wasn’t about to lose it without a fight. Sadly, like so many, she fought but lost.

I thought of that last week when more than a million people marched peacefully in favor of immigration reform. Bubbe would have been there.

She also raised five children during the Depression, only one of whom finished high school. They had regular jobs — like salesman in Filene’s Basement, clothing factory cutter, taxi driver and laborer.

Of the children’s children, Nellie’s 11 grandchildren, ten graduated from college and three earned PhDs.

I don’t tell you all this to brag about my family, nor to argue that college degrees equate to honest, upstanding people. But I want to make a point: It’s okay for immigrants to speak their own languages, especially for that large percentage of people for whom learning a new language is extremely difficult. Their kids and grandkids will surely speak English. In fact, a recent PBS study showed that by the third generation, over 80 percent of Spanish-speaking families were studying, working and living in English.

In case you are wondering how Jewish religious and secular organizations stand on immigration reform, you should know that all that I know of favor legislation creating a path toward legal, permanent residency and citizenship. They also favor border protection policies that embody humanitarian values. And these views have been communicated to Congress.

Isn’t it nice that we Jews, at least on this one issue, are not fighting with each other?


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