Hospitality and Immigration Reform

Albert Einstein wrote: “The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.”

Would that we lived up to this ideal more often. The controversy over immigration is a case in point. In 1783, George Washington said, “The bosom of America is open to receive…the oppressed and persecuted of all nations and religions.” Yet the history of our nation is riddled with conflicts and contradictions concerning immigration policy, a patchwork policy of hostility and hospitality.

Our religious traditions teach their adherents to cultivate in themselves compassion and promote hospitality in their religious institutions and throughout their communities. Yet the current situation bespeaks a very different set of priorities much at odds with the finest values our traditions exalt.

Hebrew Scripture teaches, “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34). Jesus taught his followers, “what you do to the least of them you do unto me” (Matthew 25:35). The Qur’an instructs, “serve God… and do good… to orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer that you meet…” (4:36). For Buddhists, hospitality is a core value, both a spiritual and social way of life.

It is estimated that between eight and twelve million souls currently live in our nation without benefit of legal status. Most work hard and contribute to our economy. They pay taxes and contribute to Social Security although they cannot themselves receive Social Security benefits and are prohibited from receiving food stamps, welfare, the earned income tax credit, and most forms of Medicaid.

What has happened to our religious teachings of hospitality and compassion? Most of us can trace our lineage to people who immigrated to this country seeking precisely what those who come here now seek: a better life, one that includes political, economic, and religious freedom. Today’s immigrants labor to feed and educate their families and contribute to our society, just as our ancestors did when they came to the shores of this great land – some legally, and some illegally.
Philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote, “That a people should accept those who come and settle among them – even though they are foreigners with their own customs and clothes, their own way of speaking, their own smell – that a people should give them an akhsaniah, such as a place at the inn, and the wherewithal to breathe and live – is a song to the glory of the God of Israel.” Levinas would have agreed with Einstein.

Erecting high walls, threatening to separate families, preventing ambitious and intelligent youth from pursuing higher education – are these American values? Our nation is long overdue for comprehensive immigration reform. Justice requires it. Hospitality demands it.

Rabbi Scheinerman wrote this article for the Carroll County Times.