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The Jewish Ethicist: Refugee Redux

The Jewish Ethicist: Refugee Redux

Is there a responsibility to provide care to illegal immigrants?


Q. You write that communities should initiate programs to provide care for immigrants. Does this apply even to illegal immigrants who are technically criminals?

A. We recently discussed the problem of providing humane medical care to indigent foreigners without imposing an unfair burden on the local community. This is a burning issue in many American localities, as testified by the outpouring of mail I received on this topic.

My suggestion was to continue to provide basic treatment but to require some host community to bear the brunt of the cost. This is fair to the ill person because he is provided with vital medical care, but is also fair to the citizens who are not being asked to pay the bill. This idea was meant to combine compassion with accountability.

One objection raised by readers is that the immigrant communities are quite poor and can't pay very much, but that is certainly no reason that they should pay nothing at all, which is my understanding of the current situation. If the immigrants were not making any money they wouldn't be immigrating at all.

But the main objection I want to discuss is the complaint that most such immigrant patients are illegal. My reply is that this fact is of limited ethical significance. Now I will explain this reply at length.

While I certainly acknowledge that a host country has a right to regulate immigration equitably and that citizens may decide how many foreigners to admit and take legal action to enforce their decisions, it is still true that illegal immigration is not the same kind of crime as larceny or reckless driving. Illegal immigrants are breaking the law, but they are not trying to take advantage of others. They are mostly just trying to improve their own lot by helping to fill some pre-existing need in the host community. After all, if there were no jobs for these people, they wouldn't be coming.

Again, that doesn't mean they have a right to come, or that it is improper to expel them, but it should provide a bit of ethical perspective.

This is particularly true of the United States, a country of immigrants since its founding. I don't know exactly what fraction of second or third generation Americans are descended from illegal immigrants, but I'm sure the proportion is pretty high, and I'm certain that those who are descended from "illegal" refugees who bucked quotas from Eastern Europe or from the Far East are not ashamed of their ancestors.

This insight is also appropriate to the Jewish Ethicist. Our column is meant to bring a Jewish perspective on ethical questions. Very often this means insights from the vast wisdom of the Torah tradition, but it also means learning lessons from the Jewish historical experience. As I implied in the previous column, Jewish communities have always taken responsibility for Jewish immigrants and refugees and have sought to arrange their absorption in a legal way. For example, after the expulsion from Spain in 1492, Jews from countries all over Europe and the Mediterranean lobbied their host countries to accept their refugees. (Two countries which were particularly hospitable were Turkey and Holland.)

At the same time, we must certainly acknowledge that quite a few Jewish emigrants and refugees made their way over, under or around immigration laws. I don't think that descendants of these illegals view their ancestors as criminals, and I don't think they should. They were individuals who sought to improve their own lot while contributing what they could to the host countries; and they generally did an admirable job on both counts.

Nations have a legitimate right to regulate immigration in an equitable way, and illegal immigrants certainly shouldn't become a privileged class. Even so, hosts need to recognize that immigrants are mostly decent individuals who find economic opportunities because they have a genuine contribution to make. It follows that host communities have a practical and ethical interest in making sure that basic humanitarian services are available for immigrants in way which doesn't constitute an unfair burden on citizens. Formal arrangements to share costs with immigrant community organizations or councils are one way of advancing this interest.

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at

December 25, 2004

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Jorge Polo, January 18, 2005 12:00 AM

The Lord's mercy is greater than His Justice

This is an answer to the anonymous writer that wants to THROW THEM OUT!!

(4) Louis Reinstein, January 16, 2005 12:00 AM

Need a balanced approach

I completely agree that this issue needs to be looked at from an ethical perspective. But I think that we should also be looking at this from other perspectives as well and ask why are people coming to the USA this way, by tube, by broken down boat, and stowing away in any way possible. We can look to the Rambam in his steps to giving Tzedakah as an analogy for understanding that we should help them get jobs in their own country and live their lives in their homeland---which is where most want to live. Jews too would not have left Russia, Spain, Egypt, you name it, if we were not forced out by oppression! I do though beg to differ with Rabbi Dr. Meir in his statement, "Illegal immigrants are breaking the law, but they are not trying to take advantage of others. They are mostly just trying to improve their own lot by helping to fill some pre-existing need in the host community. After all, if there were no jobs for these people, they wouldn't be coming." Many times immigrants do come and do not seek a job but seek welfare and this is where the biggest problem lies. This is taking advantage of the host community. Those people who sneak through the system and obtain grants or other help without going through the proper channels, through the system, that everybody is meant to do are breaking the law. This is different then welcoming the stranger as Abraham did---this too is important. The fact is though that we do have laws and whether someone intends to break a law or not, if someone breaks a law they must face the consequences. This is the same for someone who comes with or without a stamped visa and passport. I do believe that we should look though to helping people before they feel they need to leave their homes and are forced to flee. But we also must be fair and balanced in our assistance. Florida for example has different policies for Haitians and Cubans and this does not seem fair. This world has become too small for us to leave anyone out in the rain. We should remember our roots and remember too how important the law is to the Jewish people. Ethics and law are not always the same, but in this case the two must be worked out in favor of those in need.

(3) Anonymous, December 29, 2004 12:00 AM


Of course illegal immigrants are taking advantage of us. Do you think there are no unemployed AMericans? If these illegal immigrants were not here those jobs would be filled by Americans.
Secondly, why should my child have to have them in his/her class in school? The teacher's time and attention is diverted with giving them time and special attention . Furthermore, instead of being in a class of 25, my child is in a class of 35 - 10 of them illegal immigrants!
We have no obligation to them, except to THROW THEM OUT!! They keep coming because they know they can get jobs, free medical treatment, and education here. If we wouldn't give it them they wouldn't come!

(2) Anonymous, December 29, 2004 12:00 AM

to illegal immigrants.

I think we are obligated as were we not "strangers in a strange land?"

I can think of many passages, including feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, etc.. I think we are obligated by our very nature of having to leave our homeland in haste. I think we should encourage illegal immigrants to gain legal status, but to leave them in terrible situations would be ethically if not morally wrong . As Jews who are we to ignore others in need?

(1) Anonymous, December 27, 2004 12:00 AM


In the 1960s and 1970s there were refugees from Hungary and Czechoslovakia who came to North America seeking freedom and a better life. We welcomed them and helped them adapt to our culture and to learn our language.

Similarly, there are those who seek refuge from Central and South America or the Caribbean and wish to better themselves and to improve the lives of their families and seek opportunities for themselves and contribute to the well-being of North America.

They should be welcomed.

Michael Abramowitz

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