Faces Behind the Immigration Spiel

Posted by Susannah Glick on Tue, Jul 05, 2011 at 11:56 am

When I began my internship with HIAS two weeks ago, I thought I knew a lot about immigration reform. I assumed that reading the daily news and following current events gave me a comprehensive look at our nation’s current immigration policies and political climate. However, now that I’m a few weeks into my summer internship at the HIAS-DC office, I realize that I had been missing a huge piece of the picture: the actual people being affected by our broken immigration system. It is easy to get lost in the headlines, the rhetoric of opinion news, and the snapshots of policymakers on Capitol Hill, but one seldom takes the time to dig beneath the surface to find the people whose lives can be dramatically affected due to the lack of immigration reform.

This summer, I have become particularly interested in the Legal Workforce Act of 2011 (H.R. 2164), which would make the government employee verification system – E-Verify – mandatory for all employers. Among other issues, E-Verify is costly and ridden with flaws and technological glitches that could potentially result in hundreds of thousands of legally authorized Americans losing their jobs. Like many other pieces of immigration-related legislation, the debate around mandatory E-Verify tends to become volatile. As the discussion shifts from a productive dialogue into more of a partisan brawl, it seems to me that the people who would be most affected by this legislation are pushed even further into the shadows.

Last week I was assigned to attend a hearing on Capitol Hill about E-Verify sponsored by the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement. I was very much looking forward to watching the proceedings, only to find out when I got there that the room was full and no alternative accommodations to view the hearing would be offered. I was frustrated. I waited outside with other interns, staffers, lobbyists, and NGO representatives while a low hum of discussion with words like “write-ups” and “deadlines” filled the hallway and almost every pair of hands was writing furiously on a Blackberry.

While we all became distracted with how we were going to leave Capitol Hill with a brief on the hearing, a small group of women with worried expressions and casual clothing caught my eye. I watched amongst a sea of suits as the women walked away, looking defeated. It is impossible for me to guess who they were, or why they were there, but I could tell instantly that they were not upset because their boss wouldn’t be getting a live-time report on the hearing. These women were likely part of the population to whom E-Verify poses the greatest threat. I was there for a work assignment, but they were there because this is their life and it is one that rests in the hands of policymakers.

I have spent a great portion of my life thinking about the future and what I “want to be when I grow up.” My early aspiration to become a fashion designer at the age of five changed in seventh grade when I wanted to be doctor and transformed again in high school to striving to be an immigration lawyer which continues to be my life ambition. Despite my dramatic career changes, I have always been told by my family and teachers that “anything is possible” and to “follow my dreams.” Similarly, every person in this country – documented or undocumented – has a dream, and it is not fair that I have been able to alter mine throughout the years while various barriers impede them from making their aspirations realities. The women I saw at that hearing have dreams. They probably used to ask themselves what they wanted to be when they grew up. Just like me, everyone deserves the right to be whatever they aspire to become. From a fashion designer to a lawyer I was never told to give up on my dreams.

Just as I was told to never give up, we as Jews should never give up fighting for immigration reform. We too were denied employment opportunities in America in the early 1900s but we never gave up and now Jewish individuals are an integral part of the workforce. It is because of the efforts made by my ancestors that I was given the opportunity to have a dream – even if it has changed a few times. Now, it is our turn to help immigrants pursue their goals.

Further, we as Jews cannot pick and choose when we want to become immigration reform advocates, and we cannot ignore the real people who are affected by the broken system, who often go unseen and unheard. It is our responsibility to speak up for those who cannot, to be the faces for those still in the shadows, and to never forget the real people whose lives are affected by the broken system. The moment we stop talking about immigration reform and the people it affects, we risk their being forgotten. We, as Jews, should never stop kvetching to Congress about this until America has a just and effective immigration system.

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