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The Jewish Ethicist: Refugee Redux

May 9, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

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

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