In fairness, the Trump administration is endeavoring to fulfill the enforcement end of immigration laws already on the books, and they have been saddled with the problem of 12 million illegal immigrants in this country. What is important, however, from my Jewish point of view, is that any racheting up of enforcement should be moderated through the lens of compassion to the stranger, a basic tenet of our religion. In the Torah, we read thirty-six times, "Love the stranger." Be kind to them, ki gerim heyeetem– for once we knew what it was to be spurned and marginal strangers in a land not our own. Judaism's radical claim is to turn a human reflex on its head. An abused person often becomes an abuser. God saw to it that our abuse would lead to sensitivity.
Yet it would be disingenuous if I left it only at this. The Israelites were also commanded to obliterate Amalek and destroy the seven nations that were occupying the land God promised Israel. These nations were practitioners of murderous rites and demanded compulsive adherence to their pagan religious practices for the Christian population trying to live an otherwise productive and law-abiding life. In addition, in the late Ancient time and certainly by the early Medieval time, rabbinic law had forbidden this way of thinking about any present day people.
A look at laws in Mishpatim of the parasha resonate, to some degree, with the issue currently evolving with this new executive thrust. Hebrew slaves who were serving a master to work off a debt were to be set free after six years. Their status was to be upgraded after the serving of a certain number of years, and they were to be provided with "perks" upon that upgrade–sufficient provisions, tools, etc.–to be able to get started again on their own. If he so chose, the Hebrew slave could seek harbor in the master's household and the master would be required to give him shelter and provisions in exchange for his servitude until the time of Jubilee, for as many as 49 years.
There is another mitzvah that applies to an extent, regarding the occasion upon which a poor person is required to give collateral. If that collateral ends up being a garment, the lender must make certain he or she has returned it by nightfall, for this could be his or her only covering on a cold night. God apparently cares that all human beings don't suffer from the cold or find themselves exposed to the elements. God, says our midrash, shares the distress of human beings who are suffering. "Created in His image" means more to God than just that we resemble some of His qualities; it means He's a parent to every human being. A mother and/or a father looks at a child as almost a phantom limb. When the child suffers, so does God, the parent.
A third mitzvah of the Torah tells us that if we afflict the orphan or widow, in due time God will become furious and our wives and children will end up beings widows and orphans. The Talmud takes this further and teaches that if we even witness such affliction and don't act to stop it, the same penalty applies. This is remarkable, the commentators opine. Such is the strictness God holds with widows and orphans. Since they are so vulnerable, they must be given extra iron-clad protections.
A fourth mitzvah that applies, to an extent, is one that tells us that if one sees the animal of an enemy suffering under an undo burden, we must stop what we are doing and help relieve the burden the animal is experiencing. Say our sages, if an enemy sees that compassion, they will reconsider being an enemy in the first place. All the more so if the enemy himself is under a burden.
Returning to modern times, some say these immigration policies are the laws of the land, and the Trump administration is just being the adult in the room. They would state that prior administrations, which have not had the courage to enforce the laws, have made the present circumstances far worse, and they would be right. But then the question becomes, what should the courts and Congress do to alleviate the human tragedy that this stricter enforcement will entail? Others may say that these folks crowd out legal immigrants' needs by overwhelming the welfare agencies, and they too would have some legal validity to their point. I would answer that this all brings up the question: how callous can we be to human tragedy in tearing away a person from the livelihood they have cobbled together and the families they have formed?
our role in all of this has been more participatory than we realize. We have worked to prepare HIHI meals for immigrants who are homeless. These men are largely illegal, but no less worthy of our Jewish compassion. Many of us will attest that it is holy work to feed the hungry and help procure them shelter in the winter, and that this population has shown nothing but gratitude to us for our commitment. We may not speak one another's language but we know appreciation and affection when we see it. Should we reconsider what we do in light of this crackdown? I would counsel just the opposite. Currently, the Administration is saying that illegals here two years and less and criminal elements are the only ones that should be worried. It is not clear, however, if it matters how long they are here to be at risk for deportation. Illegals found in the process of searching for criminal illegals or recent illegals are also at risk once they are discovered. Police forces are being deputized to do ICE work, with little training. Further, the DAKA "dreamer population," who came to the US as small children, are safe for now, as President Trump has shown some sympathy. But that does not apply to the parents of such "dreamers." Remember the mitzvah of what happens when people become widows and orphans. Deported parents are still parents who are living. A deported spouse is still living. But for all intents and purposes, they may as well not be. Will a "dreamer" travel to Mexico to visit with their now Mexican family? Were I one of them, I wouldn't go near the border. And good luck for such parents to receive travel visas to the US.
It's hard to know how this will all play out. But it seems to me that efforts to secure the border with a strong seal should proceed, with commensurate efforts to work with the present illegal immigrant community to find a means for permanent residency. These two policies should exist side-by-side once the border is tighter. While the application of our ancient mitzvoth don't exactly match, this, to me, is in their spirit. May we and our leaders be guided by their compassionate dimension, and to this we say, amen.