We are in a decidedly anti-immigrant mood. Once again Americans' doubts about their economic future are fanning the rapidly spreading flames of immigration "reform." As American Jews, we have seen this happen before. It happens at least once in every generation. Throughout history, those who are different, especially foreigners, have been seen as natural threats, and consequently natural targets, when people are afraid that what little they have will somehow be taken away.
The one thing we know about history, however, is that we often do not learn from it. As Jews seeking refuge in America, we have faced quotas and suspicion. At the turn of the century, the tales are famous about how established German Jews in East Coast communities were so embarrassed by their poor Eastern European co-religionists that they gave them free train tickets west.
In the face of nothing that challenges it, history repeats itself. But this time around, even people who have grown proud of their own immigrant roots are being swept up in the prevailing and not very generous mood. The strongest held sentiments are against illegal immigrants because they clearly broke the rules. But even within the Jewish community, distinctions between legal and illegal immigrants become blurred.
People whose own mothers and fathers struggled to build new lives in America find themselves seduced into supporting what are essentially and subtly anti-immigrant policy decisions that will in the end make life much more difficult for newcomers, our own Jewish newcomer population included.
The rationalization for all this is that somehow things were different then. Some claim "my relatives received no help from the Jewish community or the government. My family suffered." This is probably true. And if this is so — if we did not help them — do two wrongs make a right?
At the heart of the immigration debate within the general and Jewish communities is a gut feeling that we are somehow being overrun by foreigners who take precious resources including jobs away from those of us who were here first. This feeling, coupled with a perception that immigrants use more than their fair share of public benefits, makes for an explosive combination.
The facts, however, do not support this view. The total number of immigrants, legal and illegal combined, is less than what it was 100 years ago, when the U.S. population was half what it is now. Over the past six years, the number of people immigrating to the United States has declined each year.
For the Jews in particular, immigration from the deteriorating former Soviet Union has settled at a slower but steady pace of 25,000 per year, which will continue for the foreseeable future, thus challenging our will to absorb the emigres while at the same time offering an infusion of new human talent which we can hardly afford to lose.
According to a report published by the Cato Institute and the National Immigration Forum in December 1995, immigrants do not increase the rate of unemployment among native-born Americans and total per capita government expenditures on immigrants are lower than those for American born. As a group, immigrants add more to the public coffers than they use in welfare and related services. With our initial help, immigrant Jews from the Soviet Union are no exception, with the highest and the quickest self-sufficiency rates in the country.
The hotly debated immigration bills that recently passed the House and Senate not only ignore these realities, but, in their impact on legal immigrants, compromise two cherished American and Jewish values: keeping families together and equal protection.
Although they are primarily aimed at illegal immigrants, both bills restrict public benefits for legal immigrants by requiring their sponsors to take on much greater financial responsibility than previously required. Under the new legislation, the sponsor's income would be added to that of the immigrant in determining eligibility for need-based social services, even if the immigrant is not living with or dependent on the sponsor.
The impact of this policy on legal Jewish immigrants and their sponsoring families will be profound. Sponsors will be legally responsible for full support of relatives, including for costs of medical care, with absolutely no limits on their liability, no matter what the circumstances.
It means that immigrants, including elderly, would not be eligible for any government benefits. It means that younger immigrants who become disabled, even when they have been working and paying taxes, will have no recourse to safety net services available to all other legal residents.
This approach will not only hurt those other reasons, it would certainly be easy for the "don't knows" to go along with Zhirinovsky's anti-Semitism.
The same would apply to Gennady Zyuganov's Communist Party, which is apparently leading the field at the moment. There are still many who refer to opponents of Soviet ideology as "cold warriors" rather than "human rights activists," which most of them were. And the fact remains that Jews and Jewish institutions were among the most notably brutalized victims of the old Communist leadership.
More important than whether Russians show up with anti-Semitic attitudes is that three-quarters of them are either worried or uncertain about their future, and two-thirds think Russia is "going in the wrong direction." If, in their hopelessness, they elect leaders who also have an anti-Semitic agenda to which so many Russians are indifferent, then there could be serious trouble — for Israel as well as Russian Jews. Even if neither Zhirinovsky nor Zyuganov wins, they could be more influential than ever in a fevered and splintered Russia.
San Francisco Jews remember how crucial it once was to get the U.S. government to press the Soviet Union on behalf of Soviet Jews. Russia will still need American and Western help. We must gear up again to alert our public officials to apply such pressure again at the first sign of official human rights problems after the election.