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June 21, 2012 2:32 pm

Jewish Groups Praise Obama’s Immigration Shift

avatar by Atara Arbesfeld

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer meeting with President Barack Obama in June 2010 in the wake of SB 1070, to discuss immigration and border security issues. Photo: wiki commons.

In a decision that could affect as many as 800,000 immigrants, the Obama administration has decided it will no longer be deporting undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as minors. Many groups and political action committees have come out in favor of this decision, including Jewish groups committed to social justice such as the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, as well as one unexpected group – the Ultra-Orthodox Agudath Israel of America.

“The policy is both pragmatic and proper,” said David Grunblatt, Chair of Agudath Israel’s Legal Services Network Immigration Committee, in an article for Vos Iz Neias. “These foreign-born individuals were brought to this country as youngsters, were educated here, have contributed their talents here and continue to live here. They should not live in the shadow of being expelled from the U.S. to a country where they have never lived and might not even speak the language.”

Agudath Israel of America – otherwise known as the “Agudah,” the Hebrew word for “gathering” – is a communal organization with ties to both Hassidic and non-Hassidic Orthodox Jews.  The Agudah’s political, religious, and social stances are instituted by its council of rabbinic leaders, and are socially conservative in its views such as its opposition to same-sex marriage. Nevertheless, the Agudah has applauded the new immigration policy, a decision usually supported by the political left.

“The policy addresses an urgent and unfortunate situation—one that has affected many members of the Jewish Community that have sought our help but for whom little could be done,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel’s Vice President for Federal Affairs and Washington Director, to Vos Iz Neias. “And, given our community’s history, we must be particularly sensitive that our immigration policies embody compassion and common sense. This is a positive step in that direction.”

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On the other side of the religious spectrum, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, endorsed the new immigration policy on Biblical grounds.

“Leviticus commands, “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” [19:33-34],” quoted Rabbi Saperstein in a press release. “Our Jewish tradition of welcoming the stranger inspires us, even as we know that the young people covered by this new policy are not strangers; they study in our schools, serve in our armed forces, and contribute to our communities. Today’s policy announcement reflects this reality and we welcome it wholeheartedly.”

The Agudah is responsible for several Jewish educational initiatives such as running schools and youth summer camps as well as programs to promote literacy in Talmud, such as the national Daf Yomi (“One Page A Day”) program which will celebrate the completion of learning the entire Babylonian Talmud in seven years at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey this coming August. When asked why the normally socially conservative organization had come out in favor for deferred action, Rabbi Yehiel Kalish, National Director of Government Affairs for Agudath Israel, explained that during the 1970s and 80s, the Agudah had stepped in for financial and legal assistance for Jewish families who arrived in the US illegally to escape political and religious oppression in Iran, the former Soviet Union, and Yemen.

“We didn’t take a position on this issue other than agreeing with the benefits and the correctness of this decision, as we’ve seen with cases of undocumented Jewish children from had to live fearfully under the radar,” clarified Rabbi Kalish to the Algemeiner this morning. Other Orthodox groups – including the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America – had declined to comment for the story.

Those eligible in this new policy, known as “deferred action,” are undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. at under sixteen years of age and will be examined on an individual basis for those under the age of thirty. Additionally, the policy requires that illegal immigrants must have resided in the US for at least five years.   Convicted felons or those who pose a risk to national security will not be eligible. The deferred action policy will also allow undocumented immigrants to apply for job permits.

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