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Safety Net for All: A message from Stan Levy, Luis Lainer, and Terry Friedman

The Safety Net for All Workers Act (SB 227, Durazo) is, and has been, a major policy priority for Bet Tzedek. Our efforts have also been supported by the broader community. We want to emphasize how important the legislation is to Bet Tzedek and how deeply rooted it is in our history and values.

As you may know, Bet Tzedek was founded in 1974 by a group of Jewish lawyers and community advocates who joined together to represent aging Holocaust survivors — immigrants — who were living in poverty in Los Angeles. That effort has grown into what we are today: a full-service provider of community legal advocacy, representing clients and community groups facing eviction, consumer debt fraud, denial of access to government resources, wage theft, discrimination, harassment, elder abuse, and marginalization. Many, if not most, of the clients and communities we serve today are, like our very first clients, immigrants. We represent them in accordance with our core mission, taken from the Torah: Tzedek, Tzedek, tirdof — “justice, justice, shall you pursue” (Devarim/Deut. 16:20).

Our support for Safety Net for All is one of our longstanding efforts to pursue justice. The bill will provide wage replacement (unemployment insurance) for undocumented workers in California who are currently ineligible for regular unemployment insurance because of their immigration status. At the height of the COVID-19 Pandemic, all Californians could see with alarming clarity just how reliant our state is on the labor of undocumented people. Most disturbingly, we saw how, absent the economic security offered by unemployment insurance, undocumented workers were forced to make a terrible decision: stay at home and risk being unable to afford rent or food for their families or continue working and risk death by coronavirus. The absence of a safety net for undocumented workers has not become any less problematic. As storms pounded our state in December and January, we saw again just how many California workers lack access to unemployment benefits solely due to their immigration status — and how devastating that can be for them and their families.

The Jewish tradition commands Bet Tzedek and our partners to act on this issue. Recently, synagogues around the world read Parshat Mishpatim. Among the commandments in Parshat Mishpatim is one that has become a central part of the Passover seder: “You shall not wrong a stranger nor oppress one, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt…If you do mistreat them, I will hear their crying out to Me, and My anger shall blaze forth and I will put you to the sword and your own wives shall become widows and your children orphans” (Shemot/Ex. 22:20-23). To leave undocumented workers without any wage replacement program leaves them vulnerable to wage theft, harassment, discrimination, retaliation, and — as we saw with the Pandemic and recent storms — peril, starvation, and even death. The Torah obliges us to change that — not only because of our collective memory of the Land of Egypt, but also because of our more recent experiences as immigrants to the United States.

Although Safety Net for All is not targeted to specifically assist the Jewish community, it should nevertheless be a priority for our community. For example, much of Bet Tzedek’s work is based on weaving principles of Jewish faith and community into the ways in which we undertake our advocacy on behalf of all low-income individuals. The very principle of taking in strangers from a strange land led Bet Tzedek’s Board of Directors to turn away federal Legal Services Corporation funding given the prohibition on serving undocumented immigrants receipt of such funds imposes on recipients. This bold action over 40 years ago is what allows Bet Tzedek today to not only serve as a beacon of hope for the undocumented low-wage workers who turn to Bet Tzedek for help, but the hundreds of other undocumented clients, including survivors of elder abuse, tenants at risk of eviction, and unaccompanied immigrant children who would otherwise have nowhere else to turn. Measures like our Board’s are taken because the tenets of Judaism requires that our community take action and stand in solidarity with the undocumented immigrant community of California, including seeking to end the unjust exclusion to an essential safety net proposed by this legislation.