Sharing the Struggle

The Jewish Coalition for Immigrant Justice NW is working hard on immigration reform advocacy — and making it a Jewish issue, too.

“The Jews Could Be Doing This. We Can Do This.”

The Jewish Coalition for Immigrant Justice NW is working hard for immigration reform — and making it a Jewish issue.

Four years after coming together as a loose group of Jews interested in activism around immigration reform, the Jewish Coalition for Immigrant Justice NW pushes on as an organized force for change. Just this spring, they raised more than $70,000 for the Fair Fight Bond Fund, which provides bond funds for detained immigrants, and they started advocacy for Roadmap to Freedom, an immigration reform resolution introduced by Rep. Pramila Jayapal.

Run by five female volunteers who have steeped themselves in both policy and personal relationships, the Coalition resembles the organizations that cropped up around the turn of the century, when women, notably, took active leadership roles in helping the underserved and disenfranchised.

“The five of us are all organizers. This was what we do,” says co-founder Kate Harris. “We see a possibility for strength in uniting our different constituencies. So, we did that.”

Started in the heat of the Trump presidency, during heightened fears around harsh border policies, deportation enforcement, and threats to sanctuary cities, the Coalition set out to bring a Jewish voice to the conversation. “While we all are interested in making the world a better place, immigration is a particularly heartfelt touch point,” says co-founder Dina Burstein, who references the Jewish experience of flight from persecution to the safety of America. Yet the immigration realm “can be kind of a Christian world.” As churches announced that they were becoming sanctuaries, Burstein was stirred to action. She attended a presentation at St. Mark’s about the subject. “It was a very Christian presentation; tears were running down my cheeks and I thought, whoa, the Jews could be doing this. We can do this.”

The Coalition’s work started with the Fair Fight Bond Fund, which bonds undocumented immigrants out of detention so they can pursue their case with proper support. This is crucial, Harris and Burstein note, because of how hard it is to win against the immigration system, especially while in detention.

“During the Trump years, no discretion was exercised in terms of who to detain and incarcerate,” Burstein says. “There are 11 million undocumented people, people without documentation in the United States, from various countries — many, many countries. Many of them have lived in the United States for 10, 20, 30 years, and there is no way for them to become naturalized, to have a path to citizenship.”

While not legal residents, many tax-paying, working, peaceful individuals are being picked up and sent to places like the Northwest Detention Center, where they have no legal recourse and often face inhumane treatment, like solitary confinement. “Everything is stacked against these people,” Burstein continues. “If they can get out, reunite with their children, work, speak with a lawyer without paying a very expensive phone rate from the detention center, just access resources and be in their community, their possibilities of winning their cases are enormously greater. Unfortunately, the bond set by those politically appointed judges is high. They range between $5,000 and $25,000.”

The for-profit Northwest Detention Center is set to close in 2025, thanks to HB 1090, which may result in Washington outlawing detention centers for good. Meanwhile, the Fair Fight Bond Fund, which the Coalition supports along with several other advocacy groups, has bonded out 40 individuals with $300,000 raised.

Even though the end of Trump’s presidency is surely a relief to advocates, the Biden Administration is not exactly winning at immigration reform. “There are still quite a few deportations going on. The same illegal coercive tactics are being used as under Trump,” Burstein says. “What can Biden do? We have a lot of ideas for what Biden can do to broaden immigration reform.” But the main thing is not act as saviors, but to be in solidarity with the grassroots organizations and “the people who are most impacted by immigration policies.”

To that end, the Coalition is encouraging support of the Roadmap to Freedom, a “north star” resolution that imagines what sweeping immigration reform could look like. At a Zoom event on June 8, Jayapal’s deputy, Palmira Figueroa, outlined a few bills that could make progress on this roadmap: the American Dream and Promise Act, the US Citizenship Act, the Farm Workforce Modernization Act, and the Dignity for Detained Immigrants Act. When thinking about who is affected by our immigration system, Figueroa noted, we should be thinking about the people who feed us and take care of our elders.

The Coalition has the support of several synagogues, which approach the work from different angles. Some prefer to raise money or support programs; Temple Beth Hatfiloh in Olympia actually provided sanctuary. At the June 8 Roadmap event, Beth Shalom rabbi Jill Borodin shared the principles that guide her and her congregation in this work.

“This is what it means to live Torah,” she said. “The Torah tells us 36 times how we’re supposed to act toward the ger [stranger, proselyte, or sojourner].” Why 36 times? Maybe because it’s hard to do it, she suggests. And, it’s important. The Torah also discusses the mitzvah of redeeming the captive, which Borodin connects to the asylum seekers coming here who are often captives of gangs or violent families.

Beyond the scope of this article is just how hard this work is, how challenging it is for many to take seriously while they watch a surge of migrants at the southern border, and how deadlocked Democrats and Republicans are over this issue. The goal of progressive advocacy groups seems to be to put their heads down and do the work while power is still in their hands.

For the Coalition, it’s to keep working in solidarity and to bring the voice of faith-based organizations to the fore. “Endorsements by faith-based organizations are helpful in motivating legislators,” Harris said during the event, just before moving into virtual letter-writing breakout rooms.

“One of the things I feel we have to do is…shift how we look at this, from how we help others to how we are helped [by immigrants],” Borodin says. “It’s going to help us shift the cultural landscape. We’re now poised to support where the energy is. We’re set up and ready to go.”

(Photo: www.tomascastelazo.com / Wikimedia Commons)

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