Last night I had the opportunity to attend “Enacting the Dream: a Conversation on Immigration Reform” at the JCC in Manhattan with guest speakers Jose Antonio Vargas and Roy Naim. The event was moderated by Immigration Equality’s Executive Director, Rachel Tiven.
Photo Credit: JCC In Manhattan
The night started with Rabbi Ayelet Cohen, Director of the Center for Jewish Living at the JCC, discussing why immigration is relevant in a Jewish context, and how appropriate it was that we were discussing immigration reform on the day after Passover. Passover commemorates the story of Exodus, when the Jewish people had to flee Egypt. As a matter of fact, Jose Antonio Vargas joked that when he attended his first Seder, as he was reading the Haggadah, (text used to recount the Exodus story during the Passover seder) he exclaimed “this is all about immigration!” (This drew laughs from the audience!)
In what felt like a truly intimate setting, Jose and Roy, both undocumented immigrants brought here when they were young (Jose at 12 and Roy at 4), gave personal anecdotes about how being undocumented has impacted their lives. Most inspirational of all was the courage that they show, going around the country telling their story. Roy, whom I had the pleasure of tweeting with after the event, would probably like you to know that last night’s event was his second ever… A funny and relatable guy, he’s the guy next door, the guy who has spent much of his life helping others… I truly hope that he continues sharing his story; not only because he is funny and relatable, but because I think that it is incredibly important to show that undocumented immigrants can be ANY COLOR, ANY RELIGION, ANY ETHNICITY, and ANY CULTURE. This is not a Latino only issue, it is not an Asian only issue, or a “Brown” issue, as Roy said, this is a humanitarian issue.
Art by Favianna Rodriguez — with Julio Salgado, Josh MacPhee, Cynthia Brothers, Diana Mendez and Rita Jimenez.
We don’t ever think of Jews, Germans, or Russians as undocumented… we usually think of Mexicans, Guatemalans and other Latino people. I am truly grateful that Roy has decided to put a Jewish face on Dreamers, and immigration reform. Like many Hispanic, Asian and African fathers, Roy’s father came from Israel to the “Golden Medina” (the gold country) and later brought his family. Roy explained that his parents tried to find a legal pathway to citizenship but none existed. Today, after many expensive legal fees, Roy’s parents and siblings have documents; they are one of the millions of families who live as “mixed-status” families, i.e, families who have at least one member who does not have documents.
“Each undocumented person belongs to a family and to a community.” – Jose Antonio Vargas
“What is America? It is contributing to one another. I am American.” – Roy Naim
“An Unjust law is no law at all.” – St. Augustine, Martin Luther King Jr. (cited by Jose Antonio Vargas)
“Immigration should be seen as an opportunity, not as a problem.” – Jose Antonio Vargas
Perhaps the most poignant moment of the evening for me, came when Jose Antonio Vargas said that someone had asked him once, “What are you afraid of?” and He answered that he was afraid of how he would react when he saw his mother (Jose hasn’t seen his mom in almost 20 years!) As a daughter of immigrants, and now as a mom, my heart sunk when I heard him say this, and I had to fight back tears. I can’t imagine not seeing my parents for that long… I mean, it is a whole life time! I can’t imagine being separated from my son for that long! How hard it must have been for his mother to make that decision. Immigration opponents like to criminalize parents of DREAMers saying that they “broke the law” by bringing (or sending) their kids to the United States, but they fail to realize that it takes A LOT for a parent to separate him/herself from a child. Parents that do send their children away, usually do so because they want a better life, one that they cannot give them in their home countries. I assure you, it is not a decision that is taken lightly.
Both Roy and Jose talked about American friends who have helped them along the way: friends’ parents who wanted to adopt Jose, a rabbi who helped with medical bills. They both recounted events that were marked by the fact that they didn’t have papers: not being able to take the SATs, having difficulty traveling, not being able to study. Roy mentioned how limited he felt—knowing that he had so much to give, yet not being able to because of a piece of paper!
Photo Credit: Diana Limongi, AKA @LadydeeLG
Immigration reform is a human issue. It is inhumane to treat people like second-class citizens, especially when many of them are taking care of your children, mowing your lawns, cooking your meals, delivering your take-out, walking your dogs, picking your fruit… you get the picture.
My hope is that immigration reform will become a reality, so that people are not forced to live their lives without the possibility of realizing their full potential. This is a humanitarian issue, and, as Elie Wiesel said, NO HUMAN BEING IS ILLEGAL (thank you AP for stepping it up and banning the use of ILLEGAL when referring to a person!)
What does the future hold for these inspiring young men? Unfortunately, Jose was 4 months too old to be eligible for deferred action, and Roy is eligible and is waiting for his documents. Jose continues to write, is working on a documentary and travels the country speaking about the issue. Occasionally, he enters into civil Twitter brawls with conservative anti-immigration folk. Jose is waiting for Immigration Reform that hopefully will give him a path to citizenship, because, as the TIME article said “He IS American.* (just not legally). Jose founded Define American, an organization that seeks to have real discussions on immigration. Roy has just started being a voice for immigration reform and DREAMers, and I hope he continues to do so!