Jews must fight policies that can jeopardize disadvantaged

Liberals and conservatives don't agree on much in this era of growing political polarization, but even the most unrepentant left-winger concedes that the huge federal budget deficit is a time bomb threatening the economic security of our children. You don't have to be a Newt Gingrich groupie to believe that government programs need to be re-evaluated and, when necessary, overhauled to make them more efficient.

But often, the push for budgetary accountability is just a cover for other agendas that blatantly conflict with the democratic ideals that have well served this nation and its many minorities over the decades.

That combination of legitimate concern about our penchant for living beyond our means, and cynical pandering to our worst national instincts, is particularly evident in the emerging battle over immigration and refugee policy.

California's notorious Proposition 187, which passed by a comfortable margin last November, was the most visible sign of the new nativism sweeping the land, and of the willingness of many politicians to stir up the issue for their own political gain. That measure, which barred illegal immigrants from a host of state services, is serving as the model for initiatives in a number of states.

The success of Prop. 187, in turn, encouraged Congress to use cuts in services to legal and illegal immigrants and refugees as key elements in a frantic attempt to bring the federal budget under control — a political steamroller that is focusing primarily on the nation's government-funded social service infrastructure.

From the opening days of the 104th Congress, Jewish groups have been fighting rear-guard battles against a barrage of proposals that would remove even legal immigrants, including children, the disabled and the elderly, from the rolls of a host of health and welfare programs that use federal money.

If Congress approves the most extreme measures, even legal immigrants who become citizens will be judged differently from "real" citizens when applying for federal benefits like Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Medicaid or Food Stamps. That would, in effect, create two different, unequal levels of citizenship, something that flies in the face of the American tradition — and the American Jewish experience.

Recently, I was talking to a Jewish activist who has been at the forefront of fighting these changes.

"The best-case scenario is that we're going to see substantial cuts in services that will place an enormous, perhaps impossible burden on private groups that support new Americans — including Jewish federations," she said.

"At worst, we are going to see highly punitive, angry restrictions that are based on the political calculation that there are gains to be made by hitting on immigrants and refugees because of the hostility so many Americans feel towards `foreigners' in our midst. That is a very dangerous, divisive kind of situation."

Jewish leaders concede there are legitimate issues at play here. If we can no longer afford basic services to citizens, how generous can we be to people who have only recently arrived? What is the proper balance between public and private-sector programs that help absorb new arrivals?

Our Jewish ancestors arrived in this country at a time when a burgeoning economy desperately needed workers. Today, now that downsizing is a national epidemic, many Americans see their own economic prospects dimming. In that kind of climate, it is not inappropriate to ask hard questions about immigration and refugee policy.

But few legislators are forthrightly addressing these complex issues. Instead, Jewish leaders worry that the war on immigration and refugee programs is based on politicians' willingness to tap the volatile emotionalism of the issue, a powerful, socially hazardous tool of political expedience.

The avalanche of proposals restricting the rights and benefits of immigrants and refugees represents both a political calculation — of all the groups that will ultimately be affected by sweeping social service cuts, immigrants have the least political clout — and an economic one.

But there is also something cruder, according to Jewish activists here — a deliberate effort by legislators to take advantage of a traditional strain of nativism in our society that periodically oozes to the surface during times of social and economic stress.

And they fear that legitimizing divisive ethnic politics and outright scapegoating will ultimately harm the interests of all minorities, not just immigrants and refugees.

Jewish groups have traditionally defended progressive immigration and refugee policies, and an inclusive social service network aimed at the poorest among us. In doing so, they have sometimes been too willing to overlook inefficient or downright ineffective programs.

But Jews have also insisted that the way our government treats the least popular groups in our society — immigrants traditionally being in that category, but religious and ethnic minorities never far behind — sets the tone for how we treat each other.

By that standard, Jewish groups worry, the current assault on programs that serve immigrants and refugees signals a dangerous trend that is close to spinning out of control.