Jewish activists rally for DREAM Act

BY MOLLIE GRUBMAN ’20 

On Thursday, Feb. 8, the sound of air forced through a ram’s horn reverberated through the streets of Northampton. This ram’s horn is a shofar, a Jewish ceremonial instrument. Some hear this as a primitive call to battle, while others may hear the cry of a dying goat. Either way, the instrument represents an awakening, a call to action and a respect for Jewish tradition. Spearheaded by the Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action (JALSA) alongside the Pioneer Valley Worker Center, the rally called for a clean DREAM Act. A clean DREAM Act, in their eyes, would not include concessions to Trump’s wall, funding for Immigration and Customs Enforcement  and their detention centers, or the mandatory E-Verify — a vision that seems unlikely under Donald Trump’s administration.

In an era of uncertainty for immigrants under Trump, Jewish activists are calling upon their communities to stand up for undocumented immigrants. Taking the legacies outlined in the Torah and the historical oppression of Jewish people, activists seek to create lasting commitments between DREAMers and the Jewish community. Their chosen motto? “Let My People Stay,” a reference to the story of Exodus. One may imagine that these Jewish activists recognize themselves in undocumented immigrants who are being deported from the land they call home.

“The anticipated turnout was fantastic, far exceeding our expectations,” said Molly Bajgot, an organizer for JALSA. “Our numbers kept growing and we were greeted by over 300 activists on Thursday night.” The demonstrators huddled together under the illumination of a peace sign adorned with lights. The symbol brought to mind a legacy of organized protest, used widely by antiwar activists during U.S. involvement in Vietnam. Organizers handed out small candles to participants and many community members brought their own signage.

Zohar Berman ’20, a Jewish student, wore a traditional head covering as a statement of faith and held two signs bearing the same message in both English and Hebrew. One read “Tzedek, Tzedek Tirdof,” a quote originating from the book of Deuteronomy, and the other had its English equivalent, “Justice, Justice, You Shall Pursue.” A person bundled in a tallit, a ceremonial Jewish garment with fringes that represent God’s commandments, live-streamed a video of the event to Facebook in an attempt to attract a larger audience. The rally was a response to a Jewish demonstration on Capitol Hill a month prior. On Jan. 17, 86 rabbis were arrested during sit-ins for a clean DREAM Act in Washington, D.C.

That event sparked more Jewish-organized resistance toward the Trump administration, specifically its immigration policies. A Jewish social justice group, Bend the Arc, called for members of Jewish communities around the nation to demonstrate and show up for immigrants. Inspired by the quote made famous by Martin Luther King Jr., “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” the organization’s call to action specifically asked for the Jewish community to be as visible as possible. Organizers encouraged demonstrators not to show up in everyday outfits, but to wear their religious clothing and use other ceremonial markers to visibly embrace being Jewish. Bend the Arc seeks to assert themselves as a Jewish community united by a shared historical experience.

In Northampton, JALSA has followed suit supporting Bend the Arc and DREAMers by organizing the event. “Our history is one marked by oppression and persecution, exile and relocation,” said Amelia Ender, the Jewish chaplain at Mount Holyoke College. “As such, the issues are very close to home and require us to be attentive and responsive to antisemitism and all other forms of oppression and discrimination.” 

Other Jewish community leaders at the rally echoed Ender’s message. “Over the course of modern history, our people too have been exiled from our homes,” said Alice Levine, a member of the Beit Ahavah synagogue in Northampton. “We know what it is not to be strangers, but to be treated as strangers in our own homes.” She stood tall, a kippah (a traditional Jewish skull cap) on her head and a tallit wrapped around her body. Levine emphasized the privilege that many Jewish people have in the United States in her message of support, arguing that this relative privilege and their history of struggle are both reasons to protect immigrants. “We are called by our tradition to stand with those like the DREAMers and like 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country who are being targeted today,” said Levine. 

The President’s stance on immigration is in flux. The Trump administration issued a memorandum that rescinded the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy on Sept. 5, 2017. While the policy has actually continued due to a Jan. 8 injunction by California federal judge William Alsup, the future of DACA recipients still remains uncertain. In the annual State of the Union Address on Jan. 30, the President called for a bipartisan approach to new immigration. In it, he stated that Congress needs to come together to create “immigration policies that focus on the best interests of American workers and American families.” However, on Feb. 15, that proposed bipartisan bill was struck down in the Senate. The bill was a far cry from the clean DREAM Act these activists are calling for. It included provisions for a path to citizenship for many undocumented immigrants in addition to funding for Trump’s planned wall on the Mexican border.

The federal government’s inability to enact meaningful immigration reform has lead DREAMers like Eduardo Samaniego-Amaya, a Hampshire College student, to become more vocal about their undocumented statuses and publicly call for reform. At the Northampton rally, he recalled his own journey as a straight-A, student body president without U.S. citizenship, specifically the day of his graduation in his home state of Georgia. “As I was giving my speech and encouraging all students to open their wings and fly higher than ever before as they were going to colleges,” he began, his voice cracking with emotion, “I was sitting there knowing that I myself could not apply to college in the state that I call home.”

 A 2010 policy, which has since been reversed, barred qualified, undocumented students in Georgia from applying to the top five public universities in the state. Samaniego-Amaya was one of these students barred from the University of Georgia. Unable to go to college after graduation, he began organizing with the DREAMers in Washington, D.C. Now a Hampshire College student, he tirelessly advocates for a clean DREAM Act which will prevent other undocumented students from facing the same barriers to higher education. 

“We needed to come out and share our stories just so people would recognize us as the human beings that we are,” Samaniego-Amaya explained, emphasizing that undocumented students should not need to be a straight-A class president in order to be afforded the same treatment as citizens. The 2017 DREAM Act would have repealed the section of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act that prevents states from providing undocumented immigrants with higher education benefits like in-state tuition, a provision that would make it more possible for undocumented students like Samaniego-Amaya to receive college degrees.  Undocumented students, even those protected under DACA, currently cannot receive federal financial aid. Ending the speech, he began to chant and most demonstrators quickly joined him.

“What do we want?”

“A clean DREAM act!”

“When do we want it?”

“Now!”

Rochelle Malter ’18 attended the demonstration, and appreciated the event’s focus on the experience of DREAM Act recipients. “I was really glad to be able to go, even though it was so cold! I felt like they really centered the stories of the DREAMers there,” said Malter. “It felt really powerful to stand with other Jews in support of passing [the DREAM Act] and to sing prayers for strength in public.”

Bajgot described the crowd as “contemplative, engaged, grounded, and ready to roar.” This does not seem to be a one-off event. With Bend the Arc’s call to action and the momentum generated by the Northampton rally, the people at JALSA are hopeful that the Jewish community will step up and continue organizing for immigration reform and the protection of DREAMers. “We expect the momentum to keep going by supporting DREAMers and following their continued lead on what response is warranted on the ground,” commented Bajgot. “In order to do this, we will continue to coordinate the Jewish community to organize together in response.”

A rabbi on the steps of city hall boomed the ceremonial call for the shofar. “Tekiah gedolah!” Soon after, the shriek of the ram’s horn filled the brisk air. Bajgot clarified the meaning of the noise. “Part of what we use [the shofar] for is to wake ourselves up in the ways that we are being complicit,” she told the crowd. “I hope that the ram’s horn sounding helps to wake up our Senate in the way that they are being complicit in creating paths to citizenship for all DREAMers and immigrants.”

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