The untold story of DACA’s Israeli recipients
Picture in your mind a “Dreamer,” an immigrant brought to the United States as a child and now living without documentation in this country. Chances are you’re not picturing an Israeli. But here in Los Angeles, young undocumented Jews from Israel are among those facing the looming threat of deportation.
President Donald Trump’s administration recently rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA, with a six-month delay to provide time for Congress to plan a path for DACA recipients to gain permanent legal status. Whether that pronouncement sticks remains unclear.
After a meeting with Democratic leaders and a swirl of messages out of the White House, some of them contradictory, Trump said on Sept. 14 he supports legislation to protect the Dreamers, and further consideration of a wall on the southern border would be done separately.
The policy was created during President Barack Obama’s administration in 2012 as a temporary reprieve to shield young undocumented immigrants from deportation. Trump’s Sept. 5 announcement has been roundly criticized by Democrats, many Republicans and Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated Jewish organizations.
There are an estimated 800,000 DACA recipients, the vast majority of them Latino, with 79 percent coming from Mexico. More than a quarter of the total live in California. At a Sept. 10 rally, hundreds of pro-immigration demonstrators gathered in Los Angeles’ MacArthur Park, many holding signs written in Spanish and waving Mexican flags.
Israel isn’t among the two dozen countries where most DACA recipients originate. But for various reasons — often having to do with fraudulent legal advice given to their parents — these young Jews are caught in a legal limbo, unable to receive federal student aid or travel outside the country.
While their status is identical to that of other Dreamers, they are different in subtle ways, as their individual stories suggest. For example, because the number of Latinos facing deportation is so much larger, they tend to feel more comfortable sharing their concerns and anxieties with one another.
Not so for Jewish Dreamers. For many, their status is an embarrassing stigma, something they would just as soon hide from even their closest friends.
On the other hand, because Jews are often lighter-skinned than Latinos, they tend not to be subjected to the stares and derision from citizens who support the administration’s decision to eliminate DACA protections.
Furthermore, Jewish Dreamers tend to be better off financially than those from other countries, a distinction that provides securities — even if temporary — that others might not have.
In the end, however, all Dreamers are equal in the eyes of a government policy that would remove them unless a change is forthcoming from a Congress that is deeply divided on immigration issues.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank), one of more than a dozen Jewish House members, is among those who favor continuing protections for all Dreamers, including those from Israel.
“The history of the Jewish people is characterized by migration in search of safety and a better future, and I believe our own experience teaches us to empathize with the Dreamers, although relatively few are Jewish or came here from places like Israel,” he said in an email to the Journal. “The administration would treat these young people as unwanted guests in the only country they know. But I view Dreamers as part of the fabric of our nation and believe Congress must act to ensure these young people can continue to live and work in the United States without fear.”
Below are stories of a few undocumented Israeli immigrants. They agreed to share details of their lives with the Journal under the condition that their last names not be used, and in some cases, that their first names be changed to protect their identities. Although the specifics of their cases differ, they share a feeling of being Americans first and foremost, and face an uncertain future.
‘I don’t even remember what Israel looks like’
Bar, a 16-year-old high school junior in the San Fernando Valley, has known for her entire life that she was undocumented.
“It did suck not to be able to go to Israel and visit when all my friends would go,” she said. “All my family is in Israel.”
A resident of Sherman Oaks, her parents arrived on a tourist visa in 2001, when she was 6 months old. Their visas expired a year after they arrived.
“We were hoping we could fix everything before becoming illegal. We had other people giving us suggestions and it was wrong … bad advice, and we didn’t have the money at that point to fix it,” her father, Ron, said.
Ron ran a clothing factory in downtown Los Angeles and insisted on manufacturing in the U.S. but had to shutter the facility because of the high cost of labor.
“We’re paying all the debts that society is asking to pay, and we’re getting zero benefit out of it,” he said.
“I’m from L.A. This is where I’ve lived my whole life. I don’t even remember what Israel looks like.” — Bar
Undocumented immigrants pay taxes but can’t collect benefits. He now runs a printing and packaging company that outsources to Mexico and China.
Bar’s mother, Karen, works for a catering business, serving and cooking food for weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs, and other big events.
Bar joined the DACA program late last year. Some of her friends know she’s undocumented and hope one day she’ll be able to join them on trips to Israel and Mexico. She took a driver education course and hopes to get a license soon but might need to apply for an AB 60 license, available for California residents regardless of immigration status, if her DACA status expires.
She’s been a member of the Tzofim movement (Israel’s scouts program) since seventh grade. Her younger sister and brother are scouts, too. They were born in the U.S. and are citizens.
Bar counsels younger kids in Tzofim. “They all tell me before summer starts, ‘We’re going to Israel,’ and I ask them how is that. Even the youngest kids tell me about their experiences in Israel and their family. I’m very excited to be able to go,” she said.
Bar works for a birthday party business where she paints little kids’ faces, dances with them and dresses up as characters from the popular Israeli children‘s show “Yuval Hamebulbal,” a dinosaur and a fire-fighting dog. After she graduates from high school, she expects to go to community college and transfer to a four-year university to study business and fashion design.
If the DACA program is canceled, putting her at risk of deportation, she said it would be “really, really upsetting.”
“I’m from L.A. This is where I’ve lived my whole life. I don’t even remember what Israel looks like,” she said.
‘This affects kids who are pretty much American in every way’
Eli grew up in Beverly Hills and describes himself as “a typical Persian-Jewish kid” in all ways but one: He’s in the country illegally. He was born in Tel Aviv and came here in 1991, when he was 8 years old. His parents overstayed their visa when their green card application was denied.
He earned a degree from UCLA, paying his tuition out of his own pocket, and hoped to go to law school but knew he wouldn’t be allowed to practice. He struggled for years with low-paying jobs.
“A soon as I got my DACA [status] in December 2013, three months later I got hired by a Fortune 500 company,” he said. “I knew I had the ability all along but I couldn’t prove it, because I didn’t have access to a real job.”
Now in his mid-30s, he owns his own business, offering “professional services” to corporate clients.
Outside of a small group of friends and his girlfriend, nobody knows about his status.
“I don’t want to jeopardize my business or do anything that can cause harm to that. In the Persian-Jewish community people talk, and I don’t want that information out,” he said.
Eli is a fitness enthusiast, spending hours a day at the gym training in Brazilian jiu jitsu. He considers himself a hard worker, a self-made entrepreneur, and can’t understand why people wouldn’t want him to be a citizen. After all, he said, he had no say in his parents’ decision to come to the U.S. and overstay their visa.
“You can’t blame somebody who didn’t commit the crime,” he said. “If you pull somebody over and their grandson is in the backseat, you don’t give the grandson in the backseat a ticket.”
He knows plenty of Iranian-American Jews who support Trump, and he doesn’t fault them for it.
“None of them go to KKK or neo-Nazi rallies or anti-immigration rallies. They’re pro-Trump mostly because of his pro-Israel stance, and they make good money and want tax breaks,” he said.
But he said he thinks a lot of them do have a racial bias.
“They look down on Mexican immigrants as low-skilled labor. They mow their lawn and garden their backyard and take care of their kids. … A lot of them probably think we should send them back to Mexico. They don’t understand this affects kids who are pretty much American in every way other than the fact that they don’t have their citizenship here, don’t have their green card.”
‘I’ll take my American education and I’ll go somewhere else’
Rebecca’s parents came to the U.S. when she was 12 years old. They planned to return to Israel after their B-2 tourist visa expired.
“When we got here, we started to feel like we wanted to stay here,” she said. They hired a lawyer who “ended up being a crook,” and their visa expired, she said.
Now 23, Rebecca has spent roughly half her life in the United States.
“My heart is in two different places. It’s hard every day to make the choice to be here. And it’s still a choice, despite all the inconveniences of being undocumented,” she said.
When she gained DACA status in 2012, “everything really changed.” The California Dream Act enabled her to receive state financial aid at UCLA, where she graduated with a double major in anthropology and Arabic.
While at UCLA, she participated in UndocuBruins, a research grant program for undocumented students and received funding to work with a South L.A. nonprofit that trains previously incarcerated people to work on urban farms in “food deserts.”
After she “decided that urban farming is really cool,” Rebecca completed a three-month fellowship at a Jewish community farm in Berkeley called Urban Adamah. Much like a kibbutz, the fellows live and farm together. This summer she worked as a garden educator at a Jewish summer camp in northern California and is now working with other UCLA grads at a startup nonprofit called COMPASS for Youth, which provides counseling for at-risk and homeless youth in Los Angeles.
Her undocumented status has inspired her to help others.
“I feel really blessed for that, because it’s opened my eyes and made me empathetic toward the stories of so many people that I wouldn’t have been able to empathize with beforehand,” she said.
“A lot of doors have been closed on me, and I had to push through a lot of doors. I got a lot of help [and] a lot of community support. … I’m grateful.”— Rebecca
While at UCLA, she was active at Hillel and in the Jewish community, but she had to navigate her place among the mostly Latino undocumented students and the feeling of guilt that accompanies a recognition of privilege.
“Ironically, my dad is also a construction worker, just like the dads of many of the undocumented folks that I know … [but] my dad’s been able to be more successful because he has resources, and he’s not Mexican, so he’s not looked at in a particular way. I look like a white person, so I don’t experience the sort of racist reality that comes with being undocumented in America.”
Rebecca’s mother is a self-published writer of poetry in Hebrew and English.
“A lot of [the poems] are about being away from home and being separated from her family. Her dad passed away while we were here, a few years into being here. So she wasn’t able to see him for the few last years of his life, and then not at his death, not at his funeral, and not now, many years later,” she said.
Rebecca was afraid of deportation, but becoming a DACA recipient “has given me breathing room,” she said. She’d rather move to Israel on her own terms than be deported, but hopes to stay here. She’s trying to make the world a better place in her own way.
“If America doesn’t want that, too bad,” she said. “I’ll take my American education and I’ll go somewhere else.”
Despite the fear that comes with being undocumented, “the immigrant experience is the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” she said.
“I was totally uprooted and I had to cope, and assimilated to something that was 100 percent foreign to me. And that was really hard,” she added. “A lot of doors have been closed on me, and I had to push through a lot of doors. I got a lot of help [and] a lot of community support. … I’m grateful.”
‘The dreams come true here’
In the heart of affluent Beverly Hills, 17-year-old Jason harbors a secret. His family came from Israel when he was 5, and someone posing as a lawyer botched their citizenship applications and disappeared. Their work permits expired, and now Jason, his parents, and his younger brother live in the shadows.
His friends don’t know. Neither did his girlfriend, whom he considered marrying in order to gain a path to legal status. His parents actually pressured him to propose even though he knew “she would freak out, like, big time” if she found out he was undocumented.
Jason became a DACA recipient in 2015.
“I had no idea what it was,” he said. In fact, until that point, his parents hadn’t told him or his younger brother about their immigration status.
“They didn’t know we were illegal because we didn’t want them to talk to their friends,” his father, Avi, said. “Only when the DACA program came out, after talking to Neil [Sheff, their immigration lawyer], only then we told the kids.”
Jason plays guitar and plans to enroll in a music program after graduating from Beverly Hills High School. But his immigration status has complicated his plans.
“I do want to travel at some point, and if I’m not documented I can’t do that,” he said.
Returning to Israel is not an option, his parents say.
“I have nothing to do in Israel,” his mother, Ravital, said. “It’s hard to live there. Here, it’s an easier life. The dreams come true here.”
Daniel, their 13-year-old son, wants to be an actor. Because he’s too young to gain DACA status, he can’t get a work permit and audition for roles.
“Now that [Trump] canceled it, it’s a lot harder. It’s impossible, unless I get married to an American girl,” Daniel said with a laugh.
Ravital owns a skin care company, and Avi works in software development. “We do everything by the book, and we find a way to pay taxes on time,” Ravital said.
“We probably pay more taxes than Trump,” Avi added.
Many of their Israeli and Orthodox Jewish friends are Trump supporters, and they fear social alienation if their immigration status is discovered. “Before you called, we closed all the windows around the house,” Avi admitted. “The stigma of people who are illegal here is very bad.”
‘Remember the stranger and the foreigner in your land’
There’s a disconnect between Jews and undocumented immigrants, says Beverly Hills immigration attorney Neil Sheff, who speaks Hebrew and Spanish fluently. About half of his clients are Israeli, and he hears a lot of rhetoric against immigration reform from his fellow Jews, even those born in other countries.
“Their responses are usually, ‘We came here the legal way.’ When many of the Jewish immigrants came here, the immigration laws were so relaxed and the process was so much easier, everyone could come here the legal way,” he said.
“Their plight isn’t really acknowledged by the greater Jewish community, especially the Orthodox Jewish community.” – Neil Sheff
Sheff believes there are many Israelis living in L.A. without documentation, as well as Jews from South Africa, Russia and an increasing number from France, looking to escape their country’s rising tide of anti-Semitism.
“Their plight isn’t really acknowledged by the greater Jewish community, especially the Orthodox Jewish community,” which supports Trump because they consider him to be pro-Israel, Sheff said.
The Torah extolls Jews 36 times to treat strangers well, “for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21).
“It’s part and parcel of who we are as Jews to remember the stranger and the foreigner in your land,” Sheff said. “That should translate immediately to empathy for the immigrants here, whether they are immigrants who have been here for generations or just arrived.”