Thursday, March 12, 2009

Lauren Bastien's D'var Torah at Mayim Rabim

In the words of my ancestors, Gut Shabbos. Thank you so much to everyone at Mayim Rabim for welcoming me to your shul today to give the D'var and talk about immigration.

I want to start by sharing a little about this week’s Parsha Tetzaveh, which relates to G-d telling Moses about the specific clothing and anointing process for high priests in the Mishkans-the temporary temples the Israelites used while wandering in the desert. In Tetzaveh, specific instructions are also given about how to make the golden altar inside of the Mishkans. The priests are commanded to make an offering of matza bread, cakes and olive oil, plus sacrifice a bull and 2 rams for seven continuous days, in order to atone and to express deference to G-d.

The altars in the Mishkans remind us that all land is sacred and that spaces can be made sacred. In the context of immigration, we remember that this sacred land we are walking on was thriving and fully populated with first nations people before any immigrants or conquistadors arrived. So, when we hear phrases like "we are all immigrants," "this country was built by immigrants," etc., remember that this is not 100% accurate, and that Native Americans were living here first, and that not all immigrants came by choice, as in the history of African Americans.

This week's Shabbat is very special, it is the Shabbat before Purim, known as "Shabbat Zakhor," the Shabbat when we remember. Literally, we are told to "Remember what Amalek did to you on the way as you went out of not forget. (Devarim 26, 17-19)." This references Amalek, the nation that surprised the Israelites wandering in the desert in the Exodus from Egypt with an attack against the stragglers at the back.

Remembering is centrally important throughout Jewish tradition, spirituality and history, from the pre-Biblical, to Biblical days, to the present time. We take time during Purim to remember when Esther saved the Jews of Persia from the destructive plots of Haman, we take time during Pesach to remember when we were strangers in a strange land, our Exodus and later liberation, we take time during Yom Hashoah to remember the Holocaust, we take time during Shavuot to remember when we received Torah, we take time during Tisha B'av to remember the destruction of the 1st and 2nd temples, and modern tragedies for all peoples, we take time during the high holidays of Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur/Sukkot/Shmeini Atzerat/and Simhat Torah to remember the new year, the gifts of the earth and to celebrate life, we take time during Hanukah to remember miracles and victory, we take time during Tu B'shvat to remember the trees and all that they provide, and finally we take time during Rosh Chodesh and Shabbat to remember times of renewal and rest.

Within all of these opportunities for remembrance, there is one theme that would be nearly impossible to forget because it is commanded 36 times in the Torah- and that is welcoming the Stranger. As Jews, we were told for the first time three weeks ago in Mishpotim "And you shall not mistreat a stranger, nor shall you oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." Later in Kedoshim, we are reminded again "The stranger who sojourns with you shall be as a native from among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God." and so on 34 more times.

As Jews, we have had a lot of experience being the stranger- the Ger, and it is central to our identity. Whether we are newcomers to America or our families have been here for generations, we must still act with the memory of what that experience has meant for our ancestors, when we think about how we relate to new immigrants in this country today.

My family first set foot on American soil in the early 1900's arriving from Romania and Ukraine. They left behind a life I can only imagine from history books I have read and stories I have heard about pogroms, poverty and oppression. They were lucky to leave, and lucky that they came at a time when US laws were relatively open to Eastern Europeans. Had they been 10 years later, their story would have been different. In the mid- 1920's anyone coming from Eastern or Southern Europe would face quota restrictions and have a difficult time seeking out the opportunity and chance to better their lives in America, if they had been coming from China, the door would have been completely closed. Immigration laws have always been set by politics and economics, not by natural human patterns and needs. Today, our immigration system is broken and relies on enforcement only tactics like raids instead of fixing the problem.

Since its creation in 2003, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has detained thousands of people in raids on businesses and residences throughout the country. According to ICE, these raids are designed to protect public safety and national security by enforcing federal immigration law. However this is far from the truth and the vast majority of those caught up in raids are not criminals and do not threaten anyone’s' safety. Raids cause a considerable amount of hardship for immigrants and their families- both in the U.S. and in home countries- and for U.S. citizens.

Raids separate families, violate U.S. due process laws, hurt the economy, waste taxpayer money, misuse local police, and threaten the basic human rights of U.S. citizens and non-citizens alike. The aftermath of a raid continues well after the operation is over, and towns are left to deal with the resulting humanitarian and economic crisis. Here are some facts to consider:

Facts: The Raids

In 2008, 5,100 people were taken into custody during workplace raids compared to 685 in 2004.1

Many raids involve violations of due process, including entering without a warrant, interrogation without reasonable suspicion, and racial profiling.

Many ICE raids have resulted in the interrogation and detention of U.S. citizens.

Facts: The Costs

In 2002, ICE's budget was $2.4B, in 2008 it was $5B. That's 80% more than the Environmental Protection Agency and $4B more than the State Dept. Failure to pass immigration reform has resulted in a bigger budget and a bigger problem.3a

Although ICE has not disclosed the amount spent on all of its 2008 raids, $5.2 million was spent on the Agriprocessors raid in Iowa. 389 workers were detained, making the cost $13,300 per detainee.

Facts: The Detention Centers

Over 300,000 people are held in immigration detention facilities each year. The annual cost to the government is nearly $2 billion.4

Approximately 67% of people detained in ICE raids are held in over 312 county and city prisons nationwide where DHS rents bed space and detained immigrants are mixed in with criminals. 5

Immigrants detained in raids can remain in detention centers for as long as three years.6 During this time, detainees are held in severely overcrowded facilities, sometimes 50% over design capacity.

Between January 2004 and November 2007, 67 people died while in custody in detention facilities, including 1 in MN. No government body is required to keep track of deaths and publicly report them.7

Facts: the Communities and Families

Although ICE does allow for the release of some detainees for humanitarian reasons, many undocumented immigrants are afraid to tell ICE agents that they have children. Children whose parents are detained and eventually deported, are sometimes put into the foster care system.8

5,000,000 U.S. citizens under the age of 18 have 1-2 undocumented parents. 9

Small towns and local economies are crippled by raids. In towns such as Laurel, Mississippi and Postville, Iowa, sites of the two largest ICE raids in U.S. history, the loss of taxpayers, tenants, and workers at businesses have caused property values to plummet and general economic crisis.

Just like our relatives came to this country seeking to improve their lives and those of their children, oftentimes escaping dire and life-threatening conditions, immigrants today come for the same reasons. And, while many of our immigrant ancestors came here legally, many came without documents because they had no other options-quotas were full, their home countries were unsafe, they could not feed their families, and they had nowhere else to go - it was a matter of survival. Similarly, the same is true of many recent immigrants.

Our Jewish DNA compels us to understand this and act accordingly. Basically, we are commanded, and hopefully know from that DNA:
• Not to enslave strangers
• Not to wrong strangers
• Not to oppress strangers
• Not to treat strangers differently from how you would treat those you know
• Not to keep strangers outside of the benefits being part of society.

However, too frequently, new immigrants are met with hostile policies, racist agendas and an un-welcoming atmosphere. This is simply wrong- we remember from our history all too well what this kind of mentality, and actions based on it, can lead to.

Immigrants today face hardships like many of our ancestors faced, including difficulty getting here and deplorable living conditions upon arrival. For example when Jews arrived to Ellis Island, some underwent dreaded medical exams and psychological tests. Many had been slated for deportation by the sometimes harsh and imperious acting immigration officials. Because of language barriers and legal formalities, immigrants scheduled to be deported were rarely able to defend themselves. Additionally, the Jewish community suffered from very difficult working conditions.

Many new immigrants are exploited by greedy employers ready and willing to ignore US labor laws. And many immigrants are forced to live in the shadows, unwelcome to receive any of society’s benefits and safety nets. Additionally, many immigrants are forced to live life in fear- fear of deportation, fear of police and racial profiling, fear of many things we take for granted. For example, the ramifications for getting caught speeding go well beyond a pinch to the pocketbook.

Today, there is virtually no path to citizenship for the majority of newcomers, especially those coming from the Global south. Many immigrants are faced with tough choices when leaving their home countries and often are forced to separate from family and friends. The wait for family re-unification is over 20 years for many countries.

Because of this unjust treatment of the Ger, and because our history and Jewish teachings compel us, we must stand in solidarity with immigrants and demand they be treated with the same dignity, respect, human rights and openness that we expect as citizens. We must remember to our core what it is to be the stranger, the immigrant, and act accordingly.

But, it is not enough just to remember, if we do not remember to act. Right now between Purim and Passover, Jewish Community Action is half way through a campaign called Progress by Pesach- the Jewish call for an end to immigration raids and for immigration reform emphasizing family re-unification, a path to citizenship, legalize future migration, protect human rights, ensure due process of law, and protect workers and employers. The goal is that by Passover, which coincides with Obama's first 100 days, his administration will have signed an executive order ending raids, and thus making progress towards the long term goal of immigration reform.

Jewish Community Action, along with over 20 national Jewish partner organizations, is echoing the call for ending raids being made by hundreds of thousands of immigrant and immigrant rights groups.

At the end of Shabbat, I welcome all of you to get involved in Progress by Pesach. You can do so in simple ways like signing our local and national petitions and letter, or you can become involved in our team that plans and organizes events, educational workshops and mobilizations.

I also welcome all of you to attend Jewish Community Action's 7th Annual Immigrant Rights Freedom Seder on March 22nd at Mt. Zion Temple and I would be happy to tell you more about that after services, but before I forget, back to Zakhor, remembering.

Lastly, as the one year anniversary of the Postville, Iowa raid approaches on May 12, we take time to remember those affected by the human-made crisis:

-the 29 mothers who still have not had their immigration trials and whose lives and lively-hood have been on hold ever since,
-the children, mothers and fathers whose families have been cold-heartedly ripped apart,
-the workers out of jobs, struggling to make ends meet
-the people in Guatemala and Mexico who are not receiving remittances because of detained, deported or out of work family members in the US,
-and the immigrant communities, faith communities, immigrant allies, lawyers, and translators in Postville and around the country who have worked tirelessly around the clock doing humanitarian, spiritual, political and emotional relief work.

To all those affected, we remember, and we say no more. Shabbat Shalom.