Who are the Jewish ‘Dreamers’?


Our email inboxes were stuffed last week with statements from Jewish organizations urging continued protection for “Dreamers,” undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children.

One statement, though, from Agudath Israel of America, stood out in its concern not just about Dreamers, but Jewish Dreamers.

“It affects hundreds of thousands of young people, including many in the Jewish community, who have grown up and been educated in the United States, the only home they have known,” the Orthodox organization said in its statement issued on Thursday.

Last week, a JTA report focused on one such Dreamer who has become an activist, Elias Rosenfeld of Boston, but I was curious about the “many in the Jewish community” in the release. Agudah put me in touch with David Grunblatt, the lay chairman of its immigration task force and the co-head of the immigration department at Proskauer, a major law firm.

Grunblatt told me that he started hearing from Jewish Dreamers almost as soon as Agudah put out a release offering to assist them, soon after DACA was launched in 2012.

He said the number of Jewish Dreamers among the 800,000 known to have applied for protections under DACA was “not huge but not negligible,” and there were a variety of reasons for their illegal status among the cases he has handled.

“They tried to apply for a green card or for employment sponsorship, and it went wrong and they’ve been here five or six or seven years and they’re not going anywhere,” Grunblatt said. “Or a family comes here because someone in the family needs medical treatment, they stay six months, another six months, another six months and the situation is resolved one way or the other — but the family is here.”

In some cases, he said, parents successfully obtain green cards but fail to obtain them for their children.

Grunblatt said that in one case, he was contacted by an all-girls school.

“They discovered one of the girls in the school was undocumented because they were going on a school trip to Canada and the kid didn’t even know [if] she was documented,” he said.

That’s fairly common, said Melanie Nezer, a vice president at HIAS, the lead Jewish organization handling immigration advocacy.

“If a child is brought over when they’re a baby or a very young child, they just grow up American,” she said. “They speak English — why would they think they’re different from anyone else?”

While support for the Dreamers has been fairly bipartisan, and Jewish organizational consensus is for a solution that lets them stay in the country, some Jews have major qualms about the program — especially with the way it was created by executive order under Obama.

“If the Obama administration wanted to implement the DACA program, it should have made the case to Congress and try to pass its proposal into law,” Rep. Lee Zeldin of Long Island, one of two Jewish Republicans in Congress, said in a statement. “The administration absolutely did not have the authority to write its own ‘laws.’

“If the proposal did not have the support to pass, then it should not go into effect. That is how our process is designed and must be respected.”

Zeldin said he is “open” to debating the issue with his colleagues, but “[m]y priority will always unapologetically remain with fighting for the people following the laws rather than the ones breaking them.”

Nezer said her impression was that the majority of Dreamers fit the profile that gets the most prominent play in the media: those who arrive here as babies or toddlers with their parents from Mexico or Central America.

But that the population is more diverse than that template — and includes Jews — should not surprise members of the Jewish community, she said.

“Our parents and grandparents took these risks not for themselves but for us,” Nezer said. “And that’s exactly what the Dreamers’ parents did.”

Few lives track an easy trajectory, Grunblatt said, and Dreamers are no different.

“It’s life,” he said. “Things happen in life, plans go awry, ambitions fail and people end up here.”