Supreme Court Strikes Down Part Of Voting Rights Act


These areas with historic patterns of disenfranchisement had been required to obtain pre-approval of certain changes to their voting laws. (Google map by the Washington Post.)

The White House released today the following statement by President Barack Obama on the Supreme Court Ruling on Shelby County v. Holder:

I am deeply disappointed with the Supreme Court’s decision today. For nearly 50 years, the Voting Rights Act — enacted and repeatedly renewed by wide bipartisan majorities in Congress — has helped secure the right to vote for millions of Americans. Today’s decision invalidating one of its core provisions upsets decades of well-established practices that help make sure voting is fair, especially in places where voting discrimination has been historically prevalent.

As a nation, we have made a great deal of progress toward guaranteeing every American the right to vote. But, as the Supreme Court recognized, voting discrimination still exists. And while today’s decision is a setback, it doesn’t represent the end of our efforts to end voting discrimination. I am calling on Congress to pass legislation to ensure every American has equal access to the polls. My Administration will continue to do everything in its power to ensure a fair and equal voting process.

Reaction from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs follows the jump.


Martin Luther King, Jr., Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marching in Montgomery, Alabama in 1965 at the conclusion of the famous march for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery.

JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutow:

The fundamental premise of our democracy is that every citizen can cast a meaningful vote and together those votes will create a republic that is representative of the people. Today’s ruling is distressing because it makes it more difficult to ensure the integrity of our voting systems. The Voting Rights Act is one of the most effective civil rights laws in our nation’s history and is still needed. There are great disparities in how Americans vote. Long waiting times, identification requirements, and widely varying registration and voting technologies all affect the way Americans experience their right to vote and tend to have an onerous and disproportionate affect on minority populations. Preservation of the VRA remains essential to our national progress toward a more perfect union. Unfortunately, the decision handed down today undermines the Federal government’s best tool to ensure this progress. We are up to the challenge implicit in this ruling. Congress needs to act to remove the obstacles to the ballot so that no American is denied the right to vote.

JCPA Chair Larry Gold:

Equal participation for all is at the heart of our work as an agency and part of the American Jewish community’s legacy. Our gains have been won through hard work and dedication, and that same spirit will continue to carry us in the work that lies ahead. A federal role in ensuring a fully participatory democracy is still necessary and a strong VRA remains a vital interest. The JCPA has a long history of advocating for voting rights. Today we recommit ourselves to the principles of the VRA we first advocated for decades ago. We find the same resolve today to work with Congress and the President to repair the Voting Rights Act that we had in the 1960’s when we worked with Congress and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson on this very bill. We stand committed to ensuring all American citizens a meaningful vote and the systems are in place to root out discrimination from our political process.

New Opportunity for House Farm Bill

— by Benjamin Suarato

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs welcomed the House of Representatives’ rejection of the proposed Farm Bill. The bill, which included a $21 billion cut to SNAP (formerly food stamps) failed by a vote of 195-234.

“Now is time to press the restart button,” said JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutow. “The House of Representatives defeated a Farm Bill that would have eliminated food assistance for 2 million individuals, many of whom are in working families with children or seniors.  Now Congress has the opportunity to debate a serious food policy that aims to feed all Americans, not take food from the hungry.  

More after the jump.
We will continue to work with our partners in Congress and our allied faith and anti-hunger advocates to protect SNAP. We encourage Congress to move forward with a more responsible Farm Bill, one that doesn’t aim to undermine our safety net.”

“Hunger cannot be legislated away or zeroed out through budgeting. It must be confronted with compassion and effective solutions. In SNAP, we have both,” said JCPA Chair Larry Gold. “Since the beginning of the recession, SNAP has done exactly what it was designed to do: meet the needs of those who suddenly found themselves unemployed or struggling to support their family through no fault of their own. With a near 97% efficiency rate, SNAP has raised 3.9 million people out of poverty in 2011 alone and kept even more from hunger while also contributing to local economies.  We thank the majority who voted to protect our most vulnerable and are eager to continue working with Congress to pass a Farm Bill that addresses our deficit in a serious manner without targeting the poor our society should be protecting.”

Rice and Power Picked for Top Foreign Policy Jobs

Yesterday, President Obama announced that after more than four years overseeing the work of the National Security Council, Tom Donilon will depart in July as National Security Advisor and will be succeeded by Susan Rice. Ambassador Rice will be succeeded by Samantha Power as the next U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, pending Senate confirmation.

Reactions from BBI, NJDC and JCPA follow the the jump.


Susan Rice and Samantha Power

B’nai B’rith International has issued the following statement, welcoming Rice’s appointment:

Rice was previously the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and served as a positive force within the world body. She often defended Israel against malicious one-sided resolutions intended to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state. Rice spoke at the United Nations about the importance of direct negotiation between the parties to the Middle East conflict and urged the world body to resist unilateral measures aimed at circumventing the peace process.

Rice also expressed U.S. support for strong international sanctions against Iran and made clear America’s determination to prevent the regime in Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

B’nai B’rith looks forward to working with Rice in her new position. We hope that in her new role she will be a force for advancing the same principles she fought for at the U.N.

National Jewish Democratic Council (NJDC) Chair Marc R. Stanley said:

On behalf of the NJDC Board, I want to thank Tom Donilon for his service to the Obama Administration. Donilon has been a part of President Obama’s most significant defense policy decisions, including the Administration’s work to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship. We wish him the best in his future endeavors.

Without question, Susan Rice has served the Obama Administration well in the United Nations and has made combatting anti-Israel bias a top priority for the U.S. delegation. NJDC commends her for her work at the U.N. and we know that she will serve the President effectively as his new National Security Advisor. We also congratulate Samantha Power on her selection and have full confidence that she will continue Rice’s work on behalf of the United States and Israel in U.N. bodies.

JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutow said:

Both Susan Rice and Samantha Power have been dedicated public servants and important partners in our work. As Ambassador to the U.N., Rice has played a crucial role in strengthening the U.S.-Israel relationship and has been a steadfast ally for the Jewish state through many pressing challenges. Just a few weeks ago, leaders from the JCPA, The Jewish Federations of North America, UJA-Federation of New York, and the JCRC of New York visited Amb. Rice and gave her a mezuzah for her New York office in honor of her staunch support for Israel and as a symbol of her friendship with the American Jewish community.  We look forward to continuing our work together when she returns to Washington and assumes her new role.

We have also worked closely with Samantha Power over the years in her roles as journalist, activist, and government official.  Power has been a critical voice on human rights issues and we are very proud of our joint work to confront atrocities, including that in Darfur and the ongoing crisis in Sudan.

Kerry Appoints Ira Forman as Special Envoy to Combat Anti-Semitism

Secretary of State John Kerry announced yesterday that Ira Forman will serve as the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Forman, a graduate of both Harvard and Stanford Universities, previously served as Director of Congressional Relations for the Office of Personnel Management during the Clinton administration. He led the National Jewish Democratic Council for fifteen years. Secretary Kerry made the announcement as he released the 2012 International Religious Freedom Report.

Response after the jump from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
The Global Anti-Semitism Review Act of 2004 created the position of Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism. Special Envoy Forman’s first act will be to join a group of imams for visiting the site of the former Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. He will then proceed to the International Conference of the Global Forum for Combating Anti-Semitism in Jerusalem.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs enthusiastically welcomed the selection of Forman. JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutov said:

For decades, I have admired my friend and colleague, Ira Forman, as a devoted father and husband, model in his community, and voice for positive change in the world. I am proud of our government’s unprecedented commitment to make fighting anti-Semitism a national priority, thanks in large part to the extraordinary leadership in recent years of the immediate past Special Envoy Hannah Rosenthal, my beloved predecessor at the JCPA. In selecting someone with the experience and wisdom of Ira, Secretary Kerry and President Obama have made sure this important work will continue. We also are appreciative of the excellent work in this arena carried out by Ambassador Michael Kozak, who has served as the Interim Special Envoy.

JCPA Chair Larry Gold added:

Ira is a deeply respected figure who has long been a powerful advocate for Jewish community interests here at home. With this new position as Anti-Semitism Envoy, he will take that respect and his passion abroad to help identify anti-Semitism where it persists and bring the influence of the US State Department to bear in attacking this pernicious phenomenon.

JCPA to Host “National Hunger Seder” at US Capitol

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs and MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger will host Members of Congress, Administration officials, school children, and other national faith, anti-hunger and anti-poverty leaders for the National Hunger Seder on March 20, 2013 at the US Capitol Visitor’s Center.

The National Hunger Seder is an adaptation of the traditional Passover Seder, telling the story of the Exodus with emphasis on the moral imperative to end hunger in America. The National Hunger Seder is the kick off to the 5th Annual MAZON/JCPA Hunger Seder Mobilization taking place in 27 communities around the country, which are designed to encourage participants to advocate to restore the 5.1% cut to the WIC program mandated by the sequester.

After the jump: JSPAN issues a Haggadah Supplement on immigration.
Participants in the National Hunger Seder Include:

  • Rep. David Cicilline (RI-1)
  • Rep. Ted Deutch (FL-21)
  • Rep. Jim McGovern (MA-2)
  • Officials from the White House, the United States Department of Agriculture and the United States Department of Health and Human Services
  • Representatives from National WIC Association, Food Research and Action Center, Congressional Hunger Center, Alliance to End Hunger, Center for American Progress, Bread for the World, National Council of Churches, US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Islamic Relief, American Jewish World Service, Bend the Arc, National Council of Jewish Women, The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, JCPA, MAZON, Jewish Primary Day School and more.

Meanwhile, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN) issued a Haggadah Supplement titled Welcoming the Stranger to the Land. “We were immigrants in Egypt.  And we have been immigrants many times since then, until we achieved citizenship on American soil”, said Kenneth Myers, JSPAN’s Vice President.

The Seder is a time to reflect on our experience and the plight of others who have not yet achieved their freedoms here.  Millions of undocumented immigrants have no path to citizenship or the full freedoms we take for granted.  Consider what their status forever does to their lives, and how we can help them and America fulfill our common aspirations.

The Supplement can be viewed and downloaded here.

Jewish Community Welcomes Pope Francis

— by Ronald S. Lauder

Pope Francis is no stranger to us. In recent years he attended many inter-faith events co-organized by the WJC and our regional affiliate, the Latin American Jewish Congress. I personally met with him in Buenos Aires in June 2008. He always had an open ear for our concerns. By choosing such an experienced man, someone who is known for his open-mindedness, the cardinals have sent an important signal to the world. I am sure that Pope Francis will continue to be a man of dialogue, a man who is able to build bridges with other faiths.

During the papacy of Pope Benedict XVI, Catholic-Jewish relations reached unprecedented levels. This was due to the determination of the pope to continue the work of his predecessor, John Paul II. We are convinced that new pontiff will continue on this path, that he will speak out against all forms of Antisemitism both within and without the Catholic Church, that he will take action against clerics who deny or belittle the Holocaust, and that he will strengthen the Vatican’s relationship with Israel.

More reactions follow the jump.
B’nai B’rith International

In November, then-Cardinal Bergoglio was the keynote speaker at B’nai B’rith’s Krystallnacht commemoration in Buenos Aires, where he helped light the menorah.

“We welcome Pope Francis I to his new role as leader of the Catholic Church,” B’nai B’rith International President Allan J. Jacobs said. “Catholic-Jewish relations had remained a focus of Pope Benedict XVI and we look forward to continuing the solid foundation that already exists for interfaith dialogue.”


Cardinal Jorge Jorge María Bergoglio (now known as Pope Francis) and World Jewish Congress President Ronald S. Lauder in Buenos AIres in 2008.

Jewish Council for Public Affairs Chair Larry Gold

We offer our sincerest blessings and hope that our cherished friendship with the Catholic Church will continue to flourish and deepen. We are heartened by his profound statement of solidarity with the Jewish people and his identity with the pain that was caused by the 1994 bombing of the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires.

Jewish Council for Public Affairs President Rabbi Steve Gutow

We look forward to our ongoing partnership with the Catholic church in combating poverty, a great legacy of the Pope during his tenure as Cardinal of Buenos Aires. In a world so awfully divided by wealth and opportunity, may his teaching and example help to heal our broken world and bring us closer to a time when no person goes to bed hungry.

Napolitano Discusses Immigration, Sequestration at JCPA Plenum


Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano delivered remarks yesterday at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs Plenum to discuss the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) priorities, including reforming our nation’s immigration laws, DHS’ continuing engagement with the Jewish community, as well as the challenges posed by the ongoing sequestration.

“I’m very proud of the work we’ve done together with the Jewish community to strengthen and deepen our collaboration on many issues of mutual interest and concern,” said Secretary Napolitano. Noting America’s history as a nation of immigrants, She said we need to fix a “system that does not work the way it was intended to.”

More after the jump.
Napolitano highlighted the critical need for commonsense immigration reform and the Administration’s dedication of historic levels of personnel, technology, and resources to the Southwest border. In January, President Obama announced key principles for commonsense immigration reform that would continue to build upon this progress by investing in the ports of entry, and helping our officers and agents focus on public safety threats; making it harder for transnational criminal organizations to operate, while encouraging immigrants to pursue a pathway to earned citizenship; holding employers accountable and strengthening the integrity of the immigration system overall. The passage of the President’s proposal will help make sure that officers and agents along the border are better able to focus on combating public safety and national security threats.  

During her remarks, Napolitano also discussed DHS’ ongoing collaboration with the Jewish community to provide the information, tools, resources, and capabilities needed to build stronger, more resilient communities. To that end, in 2011 Napolitano announced the expansion of the “If You See Something, Say Something™” public awareness campaign the Jewish community by partnering with the JFNA and the Secure Community Network — a mechanism for information sharing with faith — and community-based organizations designed to improve security awareness in a crisis situation.

“We appreciate the Obama administration’s seriousness about improving our nation’s immigration system,” said JCPA Chair Larry Gold.

Both from our community’s own immigrant experience and our religious obligation to welcome the stranger, the Jewish community is deeply invested in seeing a fair immigration system that balances security with the need to encourage and welcome immigrants. We were pleased to be able to sit down with Secretary Napolitano and discuss our shared priorities.

Napolitano traveled to Israel last year, where she met with senior Israeli officials and signed a Joint Statement on the implementation of the Global Entry trusted traveler program, which provides expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers upon arrival in the United States.  

Jewish Organizations Applaud Obama’s Speech in State of Union


Obama visiting shooting victims last July

“Last night, the President discussed his policy proposals to pursue justice and build opportunity,” said JCPA president Rabbi Steve Gutow.

Our nation is one of ambition and aspiration, and the President spoke to both these fundamental values. He discussed some of the most intractable issues that face our nation: gun violence that leaves 30,000 Americans dead every year, an immigration system that breaks apart families and forces individuals into the shadows, an energy system that pollutes our planet and changes our climate, and an economy that has left millions without work and millions more with wages insufficient to support their families. Now, after the drama of the election and the pomp of the inauguration, our elected leaders must focus on the hard work of governance.

More after the jump.

In a few short weeks, the ‘sequester’ is poised to eliminate nutrition assistance for 600,000 women and children through cuts to WIC and end early childhood education for 70,000 young students enrolled in Head Start programs. Such policies are wrong, simply wrong. Our national challenges are opportunities to renew our shared commitments to one another and empower our communities. Over the next year, we urge the President and Congress to work in good faith in dealing with the proposals offered tonight. We must maintain focus and work together to strengthen our economy and ensure that nobody who works full time lives in poverty, protect our environment while spawning new green industry, and provide a path for prosperity for all.

“We find ourselves at a critical juncture for both policy and politics, and consensus and cooperation will be central to our success. Bipartisanship has characterized the President and Congress’ support for Israel and we were pleased to hear the President reaffirm his commitment to Israel’s security and against a nuclear armed Iran in tonight’s speech,” said JCPA chair Larry Gold.

A new model for bipartisanship on domestic issues was demonstrated in the fiscal cliff compromise of last year. We are encouraged by the serious proposals on immigration and gun violence put forward by groups of Senators and Representatives from both parties. In just a few short weeks, dramatic spending cuts will threaten important national programs from national security to education, to foreign assistance and medical research. We must make tough choices and we appreciate the President’s candor. In the next few weeks the JCPA and our member agencies will continue to work with members of Congress, community organizations, and civil society groups to develop constructive, consensus policies that protect the most vulnerable and position our nation for growth.

Bnai Brith International has released this statement:

B’nai B’rith International is encouraged President Obama will focus on aging programs, energy independence, immigration reform and reducing gun violence in his second term. His renewed commitments to Israel’s security and to preventing Iran from attaining nuclear weapons are also positive.

We are pleased with the president’s spirited defense of both domestic discretionary spending and the jobs created by these programs. The president spoke of aging programs like Medicare, and we are open to hearing more about his plan. B’nai B’rith is particularly interested in hearing about savings in Medicare from lower prescription drug costs and from encouraging better health care. We remain concerned, however, that unreasonably or arbitrarily high savings targets could force ill-advised measures that weaken the nature of the program by undermining its universality or eroding benefits.

Energy independence received renewed attention from the president during his address. Our current dependence on foreign oil undermines our security, forcing the United States to rely on fossil fuels from countries whose interests are adverse to our own. B’nai B’rith supports the president’s call for investment in alternative energy programs.

B’nai B’rith has long been a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform and we are pleased the administration is making it a priority. Creating a path to citizenship for millions of the country’s undocumented immigrants is important for the well-being of the country.

We commend the president’s insistence that the United States will “do what is necessary” to prevent Iran from “getting nuclear weapons.” Iran, the world’s largest state-sponsor of terror, continues to pursue nuclear weapons, even as an international coalition has instituted tough sanctions.

B’nai B’rith is also encouraged the president outlined a firm commitment to Israel: “And we will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace.”

We welcome the president’s commitment to reducing gun violence. The president said: “Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because they are tired of being outgunned.”

Last month, the B’nai B’rith International Executive Committee passed a formal resolution that called for a ban on assault weapons, as well as a limit on ammunition magazine capacity. B’nai B’rith pledges to work with all political parties, interest groups and coalitions to make sure meaningful bipartisan gun regulations become reality.

Of course the president’s annual address to Congress and the nation offers a framework for the president’s priorities. B’nai B’rith will review details as they emerge and work to ensure action on our key priorities.

Bipartisan Immigration Action Signals Hope for Millions

— by Benjamin Suarato

Just one day after a group of Senators released a landmark bipartisan plan, President Obama announced his intention to work with Congress on comprehensive immigration overhaul. The Jewish Council for Public Affairs welcomed both proposals and expressed a desire to work with the President and Congress to ensure passage of a comprehensive bill that will offer hope, security, and opportunity to millions of immigrants.

“This is welcome and exciting news for all Americans,” said JCPA Chair Larry Gold.

Transcript and more commentary after the jump.

That these Senators were able to come together on a bipartisan basis to offer a proposal signals a seriousness of intent that may finally allow our nation to update and reform our immigration system. Undocumented workers will be able to leave the shadows and begin the path towards citizenship, and aspiring Americans will have new opportunities to immigrate the United States. The Senate’s plan embodies the best of our national aspirations — freedom, equality, justice, and oppertunity — and offers a comprehensive and consensus set of policy proposals. The President issued a similar call today, and we are eager to work with both Republicans and Democrats, both Congress and the President, to finally see immigration reform passed. Not only will these proposals strengthen our country, but the bipartisan cooperation behind them could mean the start of a new era.

The Senate plan, introduced by Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY), John McCain (R-AZ), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Michael Bennett (D-CO), and Jeff Flake (R-AZ) would create a path for citizenship for those currently in the country (pending a border security deal), reform the process for legal immigration, implement an employment verification system, and establish an improved process for admitting future workers.

We are told in the Torah to be kind to the stranger among us because we were once strangers in Egypt; but we do not need to go back that far. We are a nation of immigrants and many in the Jewish community — and every community — are just a generation or two removed from immigrant roots. We understand from our own experiences what can be done to welcome the stranger and reduce the uncertainties and isolation of the immigrant experience. This must include the reunification of families, said JCPA President Rabbi Steve Gutow. Just as America benefitted from an influx of talent and passion before, the plans being discussed would open doors for new generations of immigrants to leave their mark on our country. Details, of course, remain to be worked out, but the thrust is clear. At the end of the day, and with bipartisan cooperation, the millions who came here to work and raise families with access to opportunity will finally gain the security to continue to live their lives as productive members of society without fear of arrest as they work towards citizenship.

The full Obama speech transcript:

Last week, I had the honor of being sworn in for a second term as President of the United States. And during my inaugural address, I talked about how making progress on the defining challenges of our time doesn’t require us to settle every debate or ignore every difference that we may have, but it does require us to find common ground and move forward in common purpose. It requires us to act.  

I know that some issues will be harder to lift than others. Some debates will be more contentious. That’s to be expected. But the reason I came here today is because of a challenge where the differences are dwindling; where a broad consensus is emerging; and where a call for action can now be heard coming from all across America. I’m here today because the time has come for common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform. The time is now. Now is the time. Now is the time. Now is the time.

I’m here because most Americans agree that it’s time to fix a system that’s been broken for way too long. I’m here because business leaders, faith leaders, labor leaders, law enforcement, and leaders from both parties are coming together to say now is the time to find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as the land of opportunity.  Now is the time to do this so we can strengthen our economy and strengthen our country’s future.

Think about it —  we define ourselves as a nation of immigrants. That’s who we are — in our bones. The promise we see in those who come here from every corner of the globe, that’s always been one of our greatest strengths. It keeps our workforce young. It keeps our country on the cutting edge. And it’s helped build the greatest economic engine the world has ever known.

After all, immigrants helped start businesses like Google and Yahoo!. They created entire new industries that, in turn, created new jobs and new prosperity for our citizens. In recent years, one in four high-tech startups in America were founded by immigrants. One in four new small business owners were immigrants, including right here in Nevada — folks who came here seeking opportunity and now want to share that opportunity with other Americans.

But we all know that today, we have an immigration system that’s out of date and badly broken; a system that’s holding us back instead of helping us grow our economy and strengthen our middle class.  

Right now, we have 11 million undocumented immigrants in America; 11 million men and women from all over the world who live their lives in the shadows. Yes, they broke the rules. They crossed the border illegally. Maybe they overstayed their visas. Those are facts. Nobody disputes them. But these 11 million men and women are now here. Many of them have been here for years. And the overwhelming majority of these individuals aren’t looking for any trouble. They’re contributing members of the community.  They’re looking out for their families. They’re looking out for their neighbors. They’re woven into the fabric of our lives.  

Every day, like the rest of us, they go out and try to earn a living. Often they do that in a shadow economy — a place where employers may offer them less than the minimum wage or make them work overtime without extra pay. And when that happens, it’s not just bad for them, it’s bad for the entire economy. Because all the businesses that are trying to do the right thing — that are hiring people legally, paying a decent wage, following the rules — they’re the ones who suffer. They’ve got to compete against companies that are breaking the rules.  And the wages and working conditions of American workers are threatened, too.

So if we’re truly committed to strengthening our middle class and providing more ladders of opportunity to those who are willing to work hard to make it into the middle class, we’ve got to fix the system.

We have to make sure that every business and every worker in America is playing by the same set of rules. We have to bring this shadow economy into the light so that everybody is held accountable — businesses for who they hire, and immigrants for getting on the right side of the law. That’s common sense. And that’s why we need comprehensive immigration reform.    

There’s another economic reason why we need reform. It’s not just about the folks who come here illegally and have the effect they have on our economy. It’s also about the folks who try to come here legally but have a hard time doing so, and the effect that has on our economy.

Right now, there are brilliant students from all over the world sitting in classrooms at our top universities. They’re earning degrees in the fields of the future, like engineering and computer science. But once they finish school, once they earn that diploma, there’s a good chance they’ll have to leave our country. Think about that.

Intel was started with the help of an immigrant who studied here and then stayed here. Instagram was started with the help of an immigrant who studied here and then stayed here. Right now in one of those classrooms, there’s a student wrestling with how to turn their big idea — their Intel or Instagram — into a big business. We’re giving them all the skills they need to figure that out, but then we’re going to turn around and tell them to start that business and create those jobs in China or India or Mexico or someplace else? That’s not how you grow new industries in America. That’s how you give new industries to our competitors. That’s why we need comprehensive immigration reform.

Now, during my first term, we took steps to try and patch up some of the worst cracks in the system.

First, we strengthened security at the borders so that we could finally stem the tide of illegal immigrants. We put more boots on the ground on the southern border than at any time in our history. And today, illegal crossings are down nearly 80 percent from their peak in 2000.

Second, we focused our enforcement efforts on criminals who are here illegally and who endanger our communities. And today, deportations of criminals is at its highest level ever.

And third, we took up the cause of the DREAMers — the young people who were brought to this country as children, young people who have grown up here, built their lives here, have futures here. We said that if you’re able to meet some basic criteria like pursuing an education, then we’ll consider offering you the chance to come out of the shadows so that you can live here and work here legally, so that you can finally have the dignity of knowing you belong.

But because this change isn’t permanent, we need Congress to act — and not just on the DREAM Act. We need Congress to act on a comprehensive approach that finally deals with the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are in the country right now. That’s what we need.

Now, the good news is that for the first time in many years, Republicans and Democrats seem ready to tackle this problem together. Members of both parties, in both chambers, are actively working on a solution. Yesterday, a bipartisan group of senators announced their principles for comprehensive immigration reform, which are very much in line with the principles I’ve proposed and campaigned on for the last few years. So at this moment, it looks like there’s a genuine desire to get this done soon, and that’s very encouraging.

But this time, action must follow. We can’t allow immigration reform to get bogged down in an endless debate. We’ve been debating this a very long time. So it’s not as if we don’t know technically what needs to get done. As a consequence, to help move this process along, today I’m laying out my ideas for immigration reform. And my hope is that this provides some key markers to members of Congress as they craft a bill, because the ideas I’m proposing have traditionally been supported by both Democrats like Ted Kennedy and Republicans like President George W. Bush. You don’t get that matchup very often. So we know where the consensus should be.

Now, of course, there will be rigorous debate about many of the details, and every stakeholder should engage in real give and take in the process. But it’s important for us to recognize that the foundation for bipartisan action is already in place. And if Congress is unable to move forward in a timely fashion, I will send up a bill based on my proposal and insist that they vote on it right away.

So the principles are pretty straightforward.  There are a lot of details behind it. We’re going to hand out a bunch of paper so that everybody will know exactly what we’re talking about. But the principles are pretty straightforward.

First, I believe we need to stay focused on enforcement. That means continuing to strengthen security at our borders. It means cracking down more forcefully on businesses that knowingly hire undocumented workers. To be fair, most businesses want to do the right thing, but a lot of them have a hard time figuring out who’s here legally, who’s not. So we need to implement a national system that allows businesses to quickly and accurately verify someone’s employment status.  And if they still knowingly hire undocumented workers, then we need to ramp up the penalties.

Second, we have to deal with the 11 million individuals who are here illegally. We all agree that these men and women should have to earn their way to citizenship. But for comprehensive immigration reform to work, it must be clear from the outset that there is a pathway to citizenship.

We’ve got to lay out a path — a process that includes passing a background check, paying taxes, paying a penalty, learning English, and then going to the back of the line, behind all the folks who are trying to come here legally. That’s only fair, right?

So that means it won’t be a quick process but it will be a fair process. And it will lift these individuals out of the shadows and give them a chance to earn their way to a green card and eventually to citizenship.

And the third principle is we’ve got to bring our legal immigration system into the 21st century because it no longer reflects the realities of our time. For example, if you are a citizen, you shouldn’t have to wait years before your family is able to join you in America. You shouldn’t have to wait years.

If you’re a foreign student who wants to pursue a career in science or technology, or a foreign entrepreneur who wants to start a business with the backing of American investors, we should help you do that here. Because if you succeed, you’ll create American businesses and American jobs. You’ll help us grow our economy. You’ll help us strengthen our middle class.

So that’s what comprehensive immigration reform looks like: smarter enforcement; a pathway to earned citizenship; improvements in the legal immigration system so that we continue to be a magnet for the best and the brightest all around the world. It’s pretty straightforward.  

The question now is simple: Do we have the resolve as a people, as a country, as a government to finally put this issue behind us? I believe that we do. I believe that we do. I believe we are finally at a moment where comprehensive immigration reform is within our grasp.

But I promise you this: The closer we get, the more emotional this debate is going to become. Immigration has always been an issue that enflames passions. That’s not surprising. There are few things that are more important to us as a society than who gets to come here and call our country home; who gets the privilege of becoming a citizen of the United States of America.  That’s a big deal.

When we talk about that in the abstract, it’s easy sometimes for the discussion to take on a feeling of “us” versus “them.” And when that happens, a lot of folks forget that most of “us” used to be “them.” We forget that.

It’s really important for us to remember our history. Unless you’re one of the first Americans, a Native American, you came from someplace else. Somebody brought you.

Ken Salazar, he’s of Mexican American descent, but he points that his family has been living where he lives for 400 years, so he didn’t immigrate anywhere.

The Irish who left behind a land of famine. The Germans who fled persecution. The Scandinavians who arrived eager to pioneer out west. The Polish. The Russians. The Italians. The Chinese.  The Japanese. The West Indians. The huddled masses who came through Ellis Island on one coast and Angel Island on the other. All those folks, before they were “us,” they were “them.”

And when each new wave of immigrants arrived, they faced resistance from those who were already here. They faced hardship. They faced racism. They faced ridicule. But over time, as they went about their daily lives, as they earned a living, as they raised a family, as they built a community, as their kids went to school here, they did their part to build a nation.

They were the Einsteins and the Carnegies. But they were also the millions of women and men whose names history may not remember, but whose actions helped make us who we are; who built this country hand by hand, brick by brick. They all came here knowing that what makes somebody an American is not just blood or birth, but allegiance to our founding principles and the faith in the idea that anyone from anywhere can write the next great chapter of our story.

And that’s still true today. Just ask Alan Aleman. Alan is here this afternoon — where is Alan? He’s around here — there he is right here. Alan was born in Mexico. He was brought to this country by his parents when he was a child. Growing up, Alan went to an American school, pledged allegiance to the American flag, felt American in every way — and he was, except for one: on paper.  

In high school, Alan watched his friends come of age — driving around town with their new licenses, earning some extra cash from their summer jobs at the mall. He knew he couldn’t do those things. But it didn’t matter that much. What mattered to Alan was earning an education so that he could live up to his God-given potential.

Last year, when Alan heard the news that we were going to offer a chance for folks like him to emerge from the shadows — even if it’s just for two years at a time — he was one of the first to sign up. And a few months ago he was one of the first people in Nevada to get approved. In that moment, Alan said, “I felt the fear vanish. I felt accepted.”

So today, Alan is in his second year at the College of Southern Nevada. Alan is studying to become a doctor. He hopes to join the Air Force. He’s working hard every single day to build a better life for himself and his family. And all he wants is the opportunity to do his part to build a better America.  

So in the coming weeks, as the idea of reform becomes more real and the debate becomes more heated, and there are folks who are trying to pull this thing apart, remember Alan and all those who share the same hopes and the same dreams. Remember that this is not just a debate about policy. It’s about people. It’s about men and women and young people who want nothing more than the chance to earn their way into the American story.

Throughout our history, that has only made our nation stronger. And it’s how we will make sure that this century is the same as the last: an American century welcoming of everybody who aspires to do something more, and who is willing to work hard to do it, and is willing to pledge that allegiance to our flag.

Jewish Organizations Applaud Obama’s Gun Violence Reducing Plan

In a speech at the White House today President Barack Obama has announced a plan with 23 executive steps for reducing gun violence:

I’m putting forward a specific set of proposals based on the work of Joe [Biden]’s task force. And in the days ahead, I intend to use whatever weight this office holds to make them a reality. Because while there is no law or set of laws that can prevent every senseless act of violence completely, no piece of legislation that will prevent every tragedy, every act of evil, if there is even one thing we can do to reduce this violence, if there is even one life that can be saved, then we’ve got an obligation to try.

And I’m going to do my part. As soon as I’m finished speaking here, I will sit at that desk and I will sign a directive giving law enforcement, schools, mental health professionals and the public health community some of the tools they need to help reduce gun violence.

We will make it easier to keep guns out of the hands of criminals by strengthening the background check system. We will help schools hire more resource officers if they want them and develop emergency preparedness plans. We will make sure mental health professionals know their options for reporting threats of violence — even as we acknowledge that someone with a mental illness is far more likely to be a victim of violent crime than the perpetrator.

More after the jump.
In response, B’nai B’rith International has issued the following statement:

B’nai B’rith International praises President Obama for his plans to introduce a legislative package next week that, among other things, would include reinstating the assault weapons ban, limiting the number of rounds in ammunition magazines, implementing universal background checks for those purchasing firearms and enacting new gun trafficking laws.

B’nai B’rith calls on both parties in Congress to work with the administration to swiftly pass effective gun legislation.

The shooting at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., a month ago and several other gun related tragedies in recent years have demonstrated a growing need for reform of the nation’s gun laws.

Following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, B’nai B’rith was quick to call on the president and Congress to reinstate the assault weapons ban, believing there is no sane, acceptable, reasonable need in a civilian setting to fire off large rounds of ammunition.

On Jan. 14, the B’nai B’rith International Executive Committee passed a formal resolution that called for a ban on assault weapons, as well as a limit on ammunition magazine capacity.

This country needs meaningful, bipartisan gun regulation. B’nai B’rith pledges to work with all political parties, interest groups and coalitions to make these regulations a reality.

“We thank President Obama and Vice President Biden for these thoughtful and comprehensive proposals to prevent gun violence in America,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

We recognize that this is a complex issue. In the month since 26 first graders and educators were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary, over 900 Americans have lost their lives from gun violence. The memory of Newtown is still fresh, and so is Aurora, Tucson, Fort Hood and other massacres that remind us that something must be done — and that there isn’t a single solution to preventing mass violence. We appreciate the Administration’s understanding that there are multiple causes which must be addressed. It is crucial that passions not ebb nor our country return to complacency. Gun violence claims new lives every day. We encourage the President to continue to move this conversation forward during his State of the Union address, keeping the protection of Americans front and center. As a community that has experienced mass violence, we appreciate the careful consideration that is being given to this issue. It is a national priority and we must keep up the momentum.

Lori Weinstein, Jewish Women International (JWI)‘s executive director issued the following statement:

JWI applauds President Obama’s bold leadership on reforming gun laws in an effort to reduce gun violence in our nation. JWI has pledged its commitment to support the banning of assault rifles and high-capacity magazines as well as strengthening and expanding background checks for gun purchasers. The executive orders announced by the President will give us added tools and strategies to further gun violence prevention. JWI calls on Congress to follow the President’s lead by enacting effective legislation.

As an organization that works every day to prevent violence against women and girls, we have seen all too often the devastating effects of gun violence. We and our network of more than 25,000 pledge to work with the Administration to make gun violence prevention a priority for the country. This issue will be of primary importance to JWI throughout the 113th Congress, and we hope for quick passage of gun laws to curb gun violence.