In My Own Words: Business and immigration


Should government be run as a business? At the risk of sounding like the rabbi in a joke – the one who agrees with two opposing sides of an argument and then agrees a third time when someone complains both people can’t be right – there is something to be said for each side of this issue. On the one hand, the government has a fiscal responsibility to use its money wisely. For example, it needs to collect enough funds to keep the country running (think police and fire departments, and snow removal, to name just a few important government functions) and look for the best possible price when handing out contracts for government projects (while also being smart enough to know when a price is too low). On the other hand, the work of the government is far more complex than that of a business. A business’ sole reason for existing is to make money; in a democracy, a government exists for the sake of its citizens – to help and protect them in a variety of ways.
The question then becomes how a government should help its citizens; some possible ways include protecting its citizens physically and financially, keeping the country’s infrastructure (i.e. bridges, roads and water lines) safe and helping citizens in need. Not everyone agrees with my very Jewish choices nor do we all agree on how to implement these protections. The recent debates about immigration fall into this category. One side proclaims that we need to limit immigrants and build walls in order to protect our citizens. The other is more open to allowing immigration, even if those immigrants don’t have an advanced education or speak English. As a rabbi and the grandchild of immigrants, it’s hard for me to divorce the debate from my personal history.
The Jewish immigrants who did manage entered this country were not always welcomed. Just read social workers reports written in the early part of the 20th century about the Jews living on the Lower East Side of New York City and you might be surprised to see how our ancestors were described. They were criminals, or dirty, or unfit parents, or just not “American” enough. One of my favorite suggestions was to prohibit the consumption of pickles by school children because it was believed the pickles made the children too excitable. 
Many of these Jews worked in menial jobs and struggled to save money so they could send for other members of their family. It was not uncommon for one person to come to the U.S. and then help others – wives, children, parents, siblings, etc. – emigrate. They often lived together in a crowded tenement apartment in order to survive. Yet, look at their children and grandchildren: doctors, lawyers, professors and scientists – the successive generations’ contributions are too numerous to count.
Actually, we could look at immigration from a business point of view: as an investment in our country’s future. Those who come to the U.S. to escape persecution or to create better lives love this country. If they follow the path of previous generations, they will work hard to create a better future for their children. Perhaps one of those children will discover the cure for cancer or learn how to better combat pollution. If we don’t take a chance, we’ll never know. So, we need to think in the long-term, not just the immediate future.
After all, the first immigrants to the U.S. – the Pilgrims, the Puritans, the indentured servants and others – were not the upper crust of their society. They were often the downtrodden or the poor or religiously persecuted who sought a better life. We also shouldn’t forget where we might be if our parents or grandparents, or great-grandparents, etc., had not been allowed in this country because they couldn’t speak English or didn’t have a trade. For the descendants of European Jews, that’s a very scary thought.