Jewish values inspire immigration reform

Gabby’s grandmother is dying.

Of all the stories of the human condition, in many ways, this is quite ordinary. It’s a story of an elderly grandmother and her granddaughter; of familial love and loss. But this story is far more complicated because Gabby hasn’t seen her grandmother in 18 years. And though she wants nothing more than to hug her elderly abuelita, the failure of United States immigration laws make that impossible. I know Gabby’s story intimately because members of her family have worked in my home for most of Gabby’s lifetime. 

When she was 3 years old, Gabby’s parents took her from her birthplace in Puebla, Mexico, and crossed the Southern U.S. border. Gabby completed elementary school, high school and then went on to a community college, knowing no other home than California. She worked as manager at a fast-food restaurant until she was forced to resign when her undocumented status was discovered. Now Gabby spends her days waiting until her application for legal residency is approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative. It has been seven months since she applied, her documents lost in the bureaucracy, but, truthfully, Gabby has been waiting for the past 18 years. 

In the bizarrely twisted Gordian knot that is U.S. immigration policy, one of the only ways for Gabby to give her grandmother a last kiss before she dies is to be deported. Because she possesses neither a passport nor a driver’s license, she can’t travel. Of course, if she were deported, she could never return to her family in California. 

So, stuck here in the only country she knows, yet unemployable, and unable to leave or continue her education without loans, Gabby lives in constant fear. If she is stopped for a traffic violation or finds herself in a situation where she is fingerprinted by police, she faces the risk of deportation. 

Under the Secure Communities (S-Comm) law, a person’s fingerprints are sent to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for a review of their immigration status. If ICE officials determine that this individual is undocumented, they ask the local jail to hold that person (sometimes for days), until ICE officials arrive and then begin deportation procedures. The result is that undocumented immigrants must avoid the very same police that you or I turn to for protection. Battered spouses do not report abuse, victims and witnesses of crimes do not turn to the police for help, families living in danger from gangs do not alert police, because police contact might put them in jeopardy. So they live in the shadows.

One strand of this hopelessly tangled knot could become untangled if State Assemblyman Tom Ammiano’s TRUST Act (AB 4) is approved by the California legislature and signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. It directs local law enforcement to only hold those individuals who are convicted of a violent or serious crime, thereby allowing police officers to continue keeping cities safe while rebuilding trust with California’s immigrant communities. Currently, certain cities in California (Los Angeles and San Francisco) already apply such a policy to varying degrees, but it is not universally practiced throughout the state. In fact, the police in Gabby’s city hold all undocumented immigrants until federal authorities arrive. 

Reform CA, an initiative of the California Reform Jewish community, is committed to working with Gov. Brown and the legislature to secure passage of AB 4. On May 23, Reform rabbis and Jewish lay leaders from throughout California were scheduled to gather in Sacramento to make the case for humane immigration. Even while we insist that national immigration reform must remain a priority, we recognize that state initiatives such as the TRUST Act will drive the national conversation. We act knowing that Reform Jewish advocates from coast to coast are also working with their state partners for national reform. 

The Jewish community has benefited beyond measure from the immigration policies of this nation, which allowed Jews to immigrate to these shores for centuries. We are compelled to act because we remember our core story: We were strangers in a land that was not our own. The imagery of the Exodus and the Jewish story of immigration and rejection, of landlessness and powerlessness, continues to animate us and guide our consciousness of the fate of others. We have experienced the pain that comes from the separation of families, of closed borders, of inhumane immigration policies. Because Jewish memory is both eternal and inspirational, we believe that we must act to achieve immigration reform. We are proud to bring our own set of values to the forefront as we stand beside our many partners in the Asian, Latino and other faith communities on behalf of the undocumented and to seek justice for immigrants in California and throughout the United States.

Rabbi Ron Stern is a member of the clergy at Stephen S. Wise Temple in Los Angeles.