By Hannah Lee
Jews have an abiding faith in immigration, going back to our Biblical roots and continuing with our arrival in the United States. This faith also showed last century, with the Soviet Jewry’s struggle for freedom, in which Philadelphian Jews had a prominent role. Finally, the recent discussions on immigration reform resonate for many Jewish people. These were the topics of a forum held on June 20th at the National Museum of American Jewish History, and coordinated by the Russian-Speaking Professionals Network of Greater Philadelphia.
Connie Smukler with Andrei Sakharov, Yelena Bonner, and Elinore Holms Norton in Moscow, 1976
Connie Smukler shared stories of her many trips to the Soviet Union, meeting with prominent (and ordinary) “refusniks,” and lobbying for their freedom. Marina Merlin, now with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) Pennsylvania, spoke of her family’s struggle to leave their country, which was painstakingly slow, degrading, and financially draining, as her husband had to leave his beloved job as a physicist in order to keep his co-workers from scrutiny by the KGB (the Soviet security agency).
Igor Kotler, executive director of the Museum of Human Rights, Freedom and Tolerance, gave an overview of the Soviet Jewry movement, dating its forming to 1969, when a group of Georgian Jews asked permission to leave for Israel. This was a result of the 1967 Six-Day War, that put Israel in the headlines and gave Russian Jews the impetus to study their Jewish heritage and history.
The honorable Carlos Giralt-Cabrales, consul-general of Mexico in Philadelphia, gave the keynote speech, in which he noted that the Mexican immigration started with an invitation, by the President Franklin D. Roosevelt, to replenish the agricultural labor force during World War II. Under what was known as the Bracero Program, about 4 1/2 million workers migrated to the United States since August 1942 and until the end of the program in 1964. Another interesting point was that this was a temporary migration, with the workers returning home to Mexico. The border enforcements of recent times broke the pattern of seasonal migration, which led to a permanent and often undocumented settlement in the United States.
Giralt-Cabrales said that there is a social and economic contradiction in the undocumented immigration, as we need the labor, but do not want the workers. “As next-door neighbors, it behooves us to seek a workable solution to our common problem,” he said. The Consul-General deems the Mexican immigration as a strictly economic one, as workers move to where there are plenty of jobs.
Judi Bernstein-Baker, the executive director of HIAS Pennsylvania, noted the differences and similarities between the movement to free Soviet Jewry and today’s struggle of immigrants to achieve a path to citizenship. The Soviet Jewry movement was a reaction to totalitarianism and a striving for religious freedom. The similarity between the two struggles is that it took protests, rallies, allies and legislation for exchange. Bernstein-Baker explained that many immigrants have lived in the U.S. for 10 or 20 years in the shadows, and supporting their effort to participate in the mainstream by earning a path to citizenship is “a very Jewish thing to do.”
Maria Sotomayer and a young ally at a rally with the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition
Maria Sotomayer is one of the young “DREAMers,” who are advocates for potential beneficiaries of the Development, Relief, and Education For Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would provide a conditional path to lawful permanent residence for certain undocumented youth brought to the United States as children. She arrived from Ecuador when she was nine, her parents worked in several jobs, and she earned good grades in school. But her prospects without documentation would be low-skill jobs such as hers at the pizza shop. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) memorandum, issued by the Department of Homeland Security in June 2012, changed her life. She has since graduated from Neumnann College, obtained a work permit, and now works for the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition. She hopes to attend graduate school to study psychology.
Bernstein-Baker noted that the publicity of the temporary opportunity for young aliens to apply for legal status with a work permit, a Social Security card, and a driver’s license — all under DACA — has broadened awareness of other avenues for legal status, already in place, such as for young immigrants who had been abused, abandoned, or victims of trafficking.
“The tenor of the public debate on immigration has shifted rapidly in recent years,” says Francois Ihor-Mazur, an immigrant lawyer, who no longer hears the query, “Why don’t you go to the back of the line, because there is no line to go behind.”
A central message of the program was that this is country “was built by immigrants, for immigrants,” said Giralt-Cabrales. It was an absorbing symposium that generated much food for thought, as well as continuing education credits for the lawyers in the audience.