Q. What does Judaism say about immigration?
A. Right now there is an intense debate in the United States and all advanced countries regarding how much immigration to allow, and what to do about those who are already living illegally in the country. The new law passed in Arizona particularly brought public attention to the topic. Even relatively poor countries can be flooded with immigrants if they happen to be richer than their nearest neighbors.
While Jewish tradition certainly cannot give us a definitive answer to what approach is best, it can help us clarify some of the values involved.
The Torah emphasizes in many places a positive, welcoming approach to the stranger or immigrant. Indeed, this attitude is described as one of the foremost lessons of our exile in Egypt. For instance, it is forbidden to take advantage of the alien’s vulnerability:
And don’t oppress the stranger nor pressure him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 22:20) Don’t pressure the stranger; and you know the feelings of a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)
The Torah even relates specifically to a refugee, one who is fleeing persecution:
Don’t turn in a slave to his master, when he flees to you from his master. Let him dwell with you in your midst, in the place he chooses in one of your gates as suits him; don’t oppress him. (Deuteronomy 23:16)
Note also that the Torah condemns the nations of Ammon and Moav for failing to show compassion to the people of Israel when we were refugees. (Deuteronomy 23:4-5.)
Some of the verses commanding compassion for a “stranger” refer to a proselyte and others refer to a true foreigner, but the underlying ethical message is the same.
Indeed, Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook wrote that having strangers among us is an essential element of a Jewish settlement. (1)
On the other hand, anyone can understand the difference between being hospitable and welcoming to aliens and refugees, and creating a situation where our community is so overwhelmed that we ourselves become the aliens and refugees. Sometimes there are objective resource constraints on immigration.
In the Middle Ages, many Jewish communities instituted a kind of communal regulation called chezkat hayishuv, or residence permit. Rabbi Yechiel Michal Epstein explains that even though many authorities felt there was no precedent in Jewish law for such a limitation, “for in what way did the current residents obtain ownership on dwelling in that town?”, even so it was accepted as a necessary piece of communal legislation. “And the reason is that Jewish settlement then was very precarious, and ruthless nations exiled them from place to place. And the more the settlement of Jews increased, the more anarchy reigned and sorrows abounded.”(2) History does show that when there were urgent cases of refugees that temporary exceptions were made to aid them.
So we seemingly find an encompassing range of opinion, from the verses of the Torah encouraging us to welcome total strangers to customs of some European communities which excluded even our own countrymen. But in fact there is no paradox and it is all the function of circumstances. To the extent that strangers are productive and law-abiding and don’t present an excessive burden, we are encouraged to learn from our own experience in exile to welcome them and even aid them. If however we are in an unusual situation where accepting strangers presents a palpable threat to existing residents, then limitations or even total prohibitions can be justified, according to the circumstances.
My personal feeling is that in the United States today most communities are not facing any special danger from immigrants and efforts should be made to accommodate reasonable numbers of them. Others may view current circumstances differently. But the underlying Jewish message is clear: hospitality is the best policy unless there are pressing circumstances that make it impractical.
SOURCES: (1) Responsa Daat Cohen 235 (2) Arukh HaShulchan Choshen Mishpat 156:12.