We Would Repay You Tenfold – Answering America’s Dreamers (DACA)

Treat the foreigner who dwells among you as one born among you.
Love the foreigner as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:33-34).

Yesterday I listened to an hour-long documentary about the long battle to get the United States to begin opening its doors to the Dreamers, young people brought to this country as children.

I cried through the entire broadcast.

I cried because the story is familiar, known, somehow visceral. It is all those things because I am a Jew.

It’s not as though we Jews do not know what it is to live in fear of expulsion. It’s not as if we Jews don’t know what it is to live on the edge of legality, without protection of kings, dukes, or modern states. It’s not as if we Jews did not carry centuries’ worth of living at the margins, in the darkness, in fear. We will be sent out, we will be thrust into danger, hunger, even death.

I do not exaggerate. Some 800,000 young people may very well be shunted back into just such a world. The government has all their information, can find them easily enough, can deport them and their families – and not infrequently to places where their lives are at risk. So much for Trump’s promises to go after all those “bad hombres” and leave these young people alone. So much for his claim that Dreamers were “incredible kids.” There are more important concerns for a man who pardoned Joe Arpaio; they are embodied by those who are still screaming “lock her up.”

And, let’s face it: Trump hardly invented anti-immigrant rhetoric, anti-immigrant policies, or anti-immigrant vitriol. It is the Republican Party and Republican senators who are threatening to sue the government unless DACA is eradicated.

Remember that chant the neo-Nazis shouted through the streets of Charlottesville – “Jews will not replace us”? During the documentary, I listened to one Trump supporter express exactly the same vitriol against Dreamers, whom she blithely accused of stealing opportunities and their jobs from American kids who had the luxury to be born to citizens.

But we don’t get to choose who we are born to or how our parents make their decisions. And a goodly number of the parents of Dreamers made exactly the same decision this woman would make if her ability to feed her child was threatened: Find a way to feed the child, no matter what it took. Go where food is, where there is more safety, more opportunity. Even if it means accepting danger, it is less danger than having your child go hungry, be at risk of gang violence, have a life so tenuous it is no life.

Our biblical forefathers and foremothers, too, left their homeland for foreign countries so they could feed their children.

It is a bitter pill. One government invites these young people to come out of the shadows. We will not deport you, we said. You can work here, you can get an education here, you can start a business and pay your taxes.

And they did.

There is no economic case to be made to deport immigrants – there is a clear economic case to be made to giving them a path to citizenship. I could spend all this space citing statistics showing how important it will be for an aging population to have and to retain immigrants (and to offer them citizenship, too). I could point out that numerous reports demonstrate that our annual GDP would actually take a serious hit if we deported the immigrant population.  We could demonstrate the purchasing power of immigrants in a capitalist society, point out the businesses and jobs created by immigrants who are twice as likely to become entrepreneurs as the native born, discuss the way any costs of immigration get more than paid back in the second generation. The Dreamers’ generation.

I am thinking of students of mine who are Dreamers, who have been paying their way through college, working one night shift after another to get their out-of-state tuition paid for, struggling to make a way for themselves in a world that refuses to admit to their existence.

I keep remembering the words of one teenage Dreamer who said: “If you would only give us a chance, we would repay you tenfold.”

Have not we Jews known what it is to ask for chances? Should not the entire Jewish community be up in arms, calling senators and representatives, asking that we give these young people the chances they work hard for and the chances they deserve?

Should we Jews not know our own texts, our own mandates? Treat the foreigner who dwells among you as one born among you. Love the foreigner as you love yourself (Leviticus 19:33-34).

We ignore our God-given Torah at our own peril. Those Dreamers are us.

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Shema, Yisrael

In three separate locations, Torah records the Israelites’ commitment to accept Torah. In each, they promise to do: na’aseh (Exodus 19:6, 24:3). The third time, the text tells us, they answer: na’aseh v’nishma – “We will do and we will hear” (Exodus 24:7).

A midrash: “And they [the Children of Israel] said, ‘all that God has said we will do and we will hear,’ since they had initially prioritized doing. Moses said to them, ‘Is doing possible without understanding? Understanding brings one to doing.’” (Mekhilta d’Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai 24:7).

V’nishma. Literally: “we will hear.”

To listen well is to understand. To understand is to discern. To discern is to recognize what is right to do. We certainly are told this much: To do right is to hearken to Torah, to obey the true leanings of the heart. For what is our time here if not an effort to hear what our hearts can tell us, to discern what our hearts call for, to understand?

Listening, so Torah, entails a commitment to justice, certainly. In First Kings 3:11 we learn that King Solomon asked not for wealth or long life, but for havin lishmoa mishpat – discernment in dispensing judgment, understanding in order to discern what is right. Deuteronomy 1:16 tells us: Hear out your fellow men, and decide justly between all – fellow Israelite or stranger.

Last Shabbat we read from Parshat Yitro, which begins with listening. V’yishma Yitro, it says. And Jethro heard. He listened to the story of all that YHVH had done. He must have imagined the jubilation on the other side of the Sea of Reeds.

Did Jethro also foresee the challenges a free people would face? Free, the people would face the fear of starvation and thirst in the wilderness. Free, they would contend with unexpected enemies, face their first battles for survival. Famished, exhausted, frightened, and free, they would be forced to contend with day-to-day difficulties. Disputes, tensions, concerns. Arguments, conflicts, disagreement.

He listens, and he acts. He takes Zipporah and his two grandsons and, upon arriving at the Israelites’ camp, he listens again. Then he tells Moses, shema b’koli, listen to my voice, my discernment, my understanding. He offers Moses good counsel: Seek capable persons who will serve unencumbered by greed. These may be your judges; these may help you establish righteousness and justice. He gives the gift of judgment so that judgment can be a gift.

We believe ourselves, in this country, to be a free people. But are we a listening one? Do we understand what Moses says in the midrash, that one cannot do right without understanding right, without hearing?

We have all heard stories in these past weeks.

The woman at my eye doctor’s office who helped me order my new lenses was gentle, friendly. Her name tag tells me she speaks Spanish. I am relearning Spanish, so we chat first. Then we talk. She tells me about herself. She tells me she is afraid. Why? Her best friend was brought to this country illegally as a child. She is a DREAMer. She thought she would be protected from deportation by applying for DACA status.

This past week, we learned, it is by no means clear that DACA recipients won’t be rounded up and deported despite the protection promised them.

Two days later my Muslim colleague at UNCC shows me pictures of her car, covered with graffiti. It is crude, ugly. Wiping it all off before her young children saw, she tells me, that was a gruesome task.

It will not be enough to hear these stories.

Listening must lead to understanding, to discerning, and to acting justly. Torah tells us that this is our very purpose during our time on earth. And we know what it means when a people hears and does not act. We know the cost of apathy, inaction, and indifference.

Learn by doing. But do by learning, by listening. And may we all – by listening, discerning, and understanding – do what we know is the right thing. To care for the world and for those who live in it. To protect the weak and the homeless and the stranger among us.

Shema, Yisrael.

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