Immigrant Roots, Immigrant Rights: The Ten Plagues



The following is an excerpt from “Immigrant Roots, Immigrant Rights,” a haggadah created for Jews United For Justice’s 11th Annual Labor Seder. The full haggadah is available in the RAC’s Passover holiday guide.

To help persuade Pharaoh to let the Hebrew slaves go free, God brought ten plagues on the people of Egypt. In a traditional seder, we remove a drop of wine or juice from our glasses as we name each ancient plague, symbolizing that even as we celebrate our liberation, our joy is reduced by the suffering of the Egyptians. Tonight, we read a list of modern plagues afflicting our country’s immigrant communities and remove a drop from our glasses to symbolize our anguish at the suffering these plagues have caused the innocent.

Ancient Plague: Blood
Modern Plague: Upheaval and Oppression in Home Countries
Immigrants to the D.C. area may be fleeing war, religious persecution, economic strife, environmental disasters, or other situations that endanger their lives, freedom, or livelihood. For example, many Salvadoran immigrants first came to the region during the country’s 12-year civil war, in which 75,000 people were killed. Similarly, many of D.C.’s Ethiopian immigrants arrived in the 1980s, following the passage of the Refugee Act, which helped to resettle Ethiopians fleeing a repressive military dictatorship.

Ancient Plague: Frogs
Modern Plague: Poor Access to Education
Schools in D.C. are swamped with students, following a nationwide trend in urban schools, which are being altered by steady high flows of newcomers. Children of immigrants tripled their share of the K-12 student population between 1970 and 2000. The D.C. school system has not been able to adequately respond to the city’s changing demographics and provide for students who have limited proficiency in English, or whose parents may not be English speakers. The population of students with limited English proficiency (LEP) rose between 1993 and 2003 by 84 percent while the overall student population rose 12 percent. These LEP students are highly concentrated in a few urban schools that are disproportionately likely to fail federal standards, leaving these students with few opportunities.

Ancient Plague: Lice
Modern Plague: Language Access Barriers
Many of our region’s immigrants are eager to integrate themselves into our communities, but limited English proficiency among adults often limits their access to education, employment, social services, health care, and housing. While the Language Access Act of 2004 obligates the D.C. government to provide translation and interpretation services to non-English speakers to ensure that all residents of D.C. are able to participate in public services, programs, and activities, the D.C. Language Access Coalition reports that government agencies consistently fail to fully comply with the law.

Ancient Plague: Wild Beasts
Modern Plague: Wage Theft
The fourth plague brought on the ancient Egyptians was hordes of wild animals that destroyed everything in their path. So too can unscrupulous employers seem when immigrants working for hourly wages encounter wage theft. Examples include employers misclassifying workers as contractors, withholding wages for overtime work, paying workers less than the minimum or agreed-upon wage, paying them with bad checks, or even not paying them at all. Almost two-thirds of day laborers in D.C., the majority of whom are immigrants, have experienced wage theft over the past year. There are few ways for workers to fight their employers to reclaim wages. The journey through D.C.’s system is long and complex, and the enforcement mechanisms that require employers to comply with regulations are very weak.

Ancient Plague: Pestilence
Modern Plague: Unemployment
The fifth ancient plague was an epidemic of disease affecting Egypt’s animals, which harmed both food resources and Egypt’s entire economy. According to a recent report by the Center for Immigration Studies, immigrants have been hit harder by the Great Recession than have native-born Americans. In 2009, immigrant unemployment was the highest it had been since the 1990s, at 9.7 percent, and among immigrants who arrived in 2006 or later, the unemployment rate was 13.3 percent. Unemployment has risen faster among the least educated immigrants.

Ancient Plague: Boils
Modern Plague: Fear of Law Enforcement
As programs such as Secure Communities are implemented throughout the country, many immigrants are reporting a heightened fear of law enforcement as local police essentially become extensions of federal immigration authorities. D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier has expressed concern that in cases of domestic violence or minor misdemeanor cases, victims and witnesses will not come forward and report crimes if immigration status checks accompany all contact with the police. The result is that immigrants— and all of our communities— become less safe, a blight on the promise of a better life in the U.S.

Ancient Plague: Hail
Modern Plague: Housing Obstacles
People who have difficulty accessing adequate shelter are at risk from exposure to weather, crime, and a host of other plagues. Housing costs in the D.C. metro area have skyrocketed, disproportionately affecting many immigrant communities. Landlords and other housing providers sometimes discriminate against immigrants based on race, country of origin, and real or perceived immigration status. Language barriers impede many immigrants’ access to their rights under fair housing and other anti-discrimination laws, and newly arrived immigrants may lack formal credit histories, preventing them from securing fair mortgages.

Ancient Plague: Locusts
Modern Plague: Racism and Racial Profiling
In ancient Egypt, food became scarce when swarms of locusts attacked crops. Immigrants today can feel similarly attacked as they experience racism from individuals and systems in the United States. Many localities have actively practiced discrimination against recent immigrants, especially those from Central and South America, by establishing ordinances that restrict day laborers from gathering to look for work, thereby limiting economic opportunities. And data from programs such as Secure Communities show that many undocumented immigrants who were deported entered the criminal justice system only because of minor offenses such as traffic tickets, a crime some have dubbed “Driving While Immigrant.”

Ancient Plague: Darkness
Modern Plague: Inability to Secure Documentation
The difficulties of securing proper documentation often force undocumented immigrants into the shadows. These struggles — particularly of adults who immigrated to support their families through higher-paying jobs, or of immigrant children who have spent most of their lives in America — have recently captured the political spotlight. There are limited legal ways of securing the proper documentation to enter and stay in this country, and the wait can sometimes take over 20 years, depending on the type of document an immigrant is applying for. Even immigrants who arrive with documentation, or are trying to obtain documentation, must endure lengthy bureaucratic hurdles and legal fees along the path to citizenship.

Ancient Plague: Slaying of the Firstborn
Modern Plague: Separation of Families
Family displacement is a problem not only for immigrants who leave their families in their home countries, but also when immigrants already living in the United States are deported and separated from family members. Deportations have risen in the past few years, and almost 1 million people have been removed in the past two years. Of these, 46,000 were parents of U.S. citizen children and were deported in the first six months of 2011. It is estimated that 5,100 children were put in the foster care system as a result of deportations, a number that is expected to rise to 15,000 in the next five years.

“Immigrant Roots, Immigrant Rights” was edited by Salem Pearce and Dan Gordon and written with the help of Zach Levinson, Shaina Korman Houston, Ilyse Kramer and Nathaniel Berman. The full haggadah is available in the RAC’s Passover holiday guide. To learn more about this issue, visit the Religious Action Center’s immigration resource page.

This post is part of #BlogExodus.

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