Eric Cantor's 'Liberal' Jewish Argument for Immigration Reform

I owe a great debt to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, whom I met in 2009 through the Republican Jewish Coalition and who helped me when I ran for Congress in 2010. So it is with some reluctance that I criticize his heartfelt remarks in Queens last weekend, where he enlisted the Jewish American experience in service of the cause of immigration reform, now pending before the House after passage in the Senate.

Cantor recalled his own family's path to Richmond, Virginia, through economic struggle and across the lines of religious and racial discrimination. He did not endorse any particular legislation, but given the context of his address--part of a faith-oriented "pilgrimage" of members of Congress from both parties to immigration sites, timed to coincide with the ongoing immigration debate--his broader purpose was unmistakable.

It is worth noting that Jewish American immigration to the United States was almost entirely legal. There is almost universal consensus in America today that legal immigration, particularly of skilled immigrants, is a good and desirable thing; the main debate is about illegal immigration--how to stop it, and what to do with illegal immigrants already in the U.S. There are few relevant parallels in the Jewish American experience.

In addition, the massive wave of Jewish immigration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was driven, in part, by aggressive persecution in Eastern Europe. Yes, many came in search of economic opportunity, just as most of today's immigrants do. But many came to avoid the Tsarist pogroms and broad discrimination, and many of those who failed to leave, or their children, would later perish in the Holocaust.

The fact that America's doors were closed after the passage of the Immigration Act of 1924 (one of the few dark moments of the Coolidge presidency) did contribute to the disaster in Europe. That experience has led Jews of all political stripes, quite rightly, to support laws providing asylum for refugees fleeing political and religious persecution. But that is not what is at issue as the U.S. confronts today's immigration problems.

Today, immigration is driven not just by economic opportunity (which has been flagging throughout the Obama "recovery," leading to lower illegal immigration from Mexico) but also by the attraction of welfare-state programs in education, health care, and poverty relief. Jewish immigrants to America included many poor people and a few notorious miscreants, but few expected to go on the dole: there wasn't much of one.

My own family--we are Jewish immigrants of a much later generation--came to the U.S. because my parents decided they did not wish to raise children in a lawless society, which is what apartheid South Africa was. More than anything else, what made the U.S. a more hopeful prospect was the rule of law. And the problem with Obama's "Dream Act" by fiat, and the Senate's "comprehensive" immigration bill, is that they erode it.

As in many things, conservatives looking for inspiration in the Jewish experience look towards Israel, where a new (and very timely) border fence with Egypt has reduced illegal crossings by 99.9%. The U.S. is a much larger country with a much longer border--but it also has a much larger economy, and can certainly do much better than a border with giant holes and an administration that refuses to enforce immigration law.

Cantor did emphasize the "need to assimilate"--an powerful and controversial impulse that Jewish Americans felt a century ago, and which successive waves of immigrants have, arguably, felt less strongly. Some of the radical organizations pushing most aggressively for immigration reform also support a multicultural posture that resists shared values and institutions. Cantor's remarks place him in opposition to that approach.

Still, Cantor's remarks echoed the standard liberal Jewish template, in which the Jewish left typically cites the Jewish experience of persecution to argue that Jews must side with fellow "victims." Likewise with Cantor's presentation on immigration: as we were strangers once, so we, too, must accept the stranger. But our heritage does not permit us to do so at the cost of the law. That is where Cantor ought to have begun.


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