Coming Full Circle: Participating in the 2009 HIAS Advocacy Mission to Washington, D.C.
Posted by Ruben Shimonov on Thu, Oct 29, 2009 at 17:41 pm
As I sit behind my laptop on this crisp autumn morning in Seattle and check my email, I come across a friendly message from a person whom I met across the country last month. "I was wondering if you would be interested in writing a guest post for the HIAS blog about your experiences on the Advocacy Mission," the email reads. There is not one moment of deliberation on my end; I immediately know that this is something I must do. I have the same determination that I felt when I first found out about the HIAS Advocacy Mission to Washington, D.C. In my eyes, the mission was not a mere possibility, but a necessity. Perhaps, some background is now warranted in order to explain my decisiveness.
My family and I are immigrants who were born in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. As Bukharian Jews (a Persian-speaking Jewish ethnic group indigenous to Central Asia), we always faced the unfavorable realities of being part of a demographic and socio-political minority community. It was HIAS that allowed us to immigrate to the United States in 1993 as refugees seeking asylum. As someone who studies history and the historical phenomena of "cause and effect," I am constantly aware of the pivotal role that HIAS has played in the trajectory of my life. Consequently, when I heard about the HIAS mission to advocate for greater immigrant rights in the United States, and the opportunity for HIAS Young Leaders to partake in the trip, I knew that I needed to be involved—not only because of my own immigrant background, but because of my family's deep connection to HIAS.
And so, before my enthusiasm could even sink in (as the period of time between learning about the trip and flying out to the east coast was very short), I was on a Seattle plane en route to Baltimore. Upon arriving to Baltimore International Airport, I realized that I was actually flying on the 8th anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks. As I was sitting in the airport, waiting for my host family to pick me up, I recalled that grave day. Aside from remembering the shock and fear that I, along with much of the world, felt on 9/11, a more personal memory came to mind: a high school classmate confronting me that day, spewing, "What did you and your country do to us?!" Those ignorant and intolerant words have been permanently etched into my mind. As I revisited that moment when I felt so vulnerable, I gained even more cognizance of the importance of my weekend trip to the nation's capital.
After spending an incredible Friday and Saturday with new friends, as well as some old ones that live in D.C., I began the Young Leaders mission on Sunday. Over a delicious Italian lunch (and a game of "human bingo"!), the Young Leaders became acquainted with each other. All of us had such poignant personal stories. Some of the Young Leaders had parents or grandparents who were resettled by HIAS, while others were themselves immigrants that HIAS resettled. From Egypt to Iran to Ukraine, the personal stories of emigration and resettlement took us on a globe-trekking journey.
Then, the educational workshop and briefing meetings took place. I definitely experienced information overload in those couple of hours! Although a lot of information was conveyed, in order to ensure that we were adequately keen on the issues, it was presented clearly and coherently. To this day, I have retained everything I learned in those several hours. The workshop presentations clearly informed us of the current immigration legal system, the ways in which the system is inadequate or broken, the kinds of reformations that are needed to fix the system (under the umbrella of Comprehensive Immigration Reform), and the specific acts for which HIAS is advocating. Specifically, we focused on three of these legislative acts: the Secure and Safe Detention and Asylum Act (which calls for enhancing due process protections in the detention system, increasing oversight in the detention centers, improving conditions of these centers, and promoting cost-saving alternatives to detention), the Reuniting Families Act (which would alleviate long waiting periods that immigrant families currently face in reuniting with family members abroad), and the DREAM Act (which would grant conditional permanent resident status—and ultimately citizenship—to undocumented immigrants that came to the U.S. prior to the age of 16 and want to pursue higher education or military service).
After this tidal wave of information, each of us had to choose an act about which we felt most passionate. This would then be the act for which we would lobby on Capitol Hill the next day. Although I strongly agreed with, and felt passionate about, all of them, I chose the DREAM Act because it struck a particularly deep chord in me. The DREAM (The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act resonated so much with me because it pertains to students. Every year, about 60,000 undocumented students graduate from American high schools. Because of choices that were made for them when they were minors, these students face all the obstacles of being undocumented immigrants, including difficulty accessing higher education and deportation. As a student, as a young adult, and as someone who knows a person in my own university who is facing deportation because he came as an undocumented minor, I was very passionate about advocating for the DREAM Act. During the “Advocacy 101” workshop, we were given the chance to engage in a mock advocacy meeting and practice our delivery and presentation. We were now ready for the “big day.”
The culminating day, Monday, was all about action, allowing us to apply everything we had just learned during the weekend. From a meeting at the White House with the HIAS Board to the UNHCR lunch meeting at the American Indian Museum, it was a fast paced morning; and the Young Leaders advocacy portion had not yet even begun! After various interesting morning and noon appointments, the Young Leaders'
Capitol Hill meetings were to finally start, and I was going to go first. With my notes and thoughts ready, and a keen understanding of how important the DREAM Act was to me, I gave my best effort in conveying coherently and effectively the information to a panel of House staffers. I began with an anecdote, telling the staffers the story of my friend who is facing the exact situation that the DREAM Act is trying to change. I then explained the DREAM Act and its significance, conveying why it is economically, logically, and ethically appropriate. I concluded one a very personal note, posing to the staffers questions that I actually asked myself the night before: I had the privilege of coming to the United States legally, but what if conditions were a bit different and my parents decided to take another route to escape their original homeland? Would I be legally considered a stranger in a country where I have been raised and feel at home? Or worse, would I now be facing deportation to a country I barely know, to an unsafe environment where I would barely fit in?
And then, my speech came to an end. Yet, the end was just a beginning. I left with so much more information and awareness on the immigration issues facing our country. I also went away with a sobering realization of the steps still needed to be taken for adequate immigration reform. As I waited in the terminal for my plane back to Seattle, I was truly amazed by the entire experience. To have learned such a great deal in just a weekend, to have been given the chance to act upon that knowledge, and to have engaged with other people committed to the issues (especially other young and highly motivated folks) was an invaluable experience.