JCRC ‘Dreamers’ film event reminds Jews of immigrant history

“The Dream is Now,” a documentary depicting the plight of young undocumented immigrants, was shown at a private screening for members of the Jewish and Latino communities on May 13 at the Loft Cinema. Following the film, four undocumented college students told their stories about living in America — as “dreamers” searching for a better life, fearing deportation. The conversation was facilitated by Ernesto Portillo, Jr., a columnist for the Arizona Daily Star.

Ernesto Portillo, Jr., left, a columnist for the Arizona Daily Star, facilitates a panel discussion at the Jewish Community Relations Council's private screening of "The Dream is Now" on May 13 at the Loft Cinema.
Ernesto Portillo, Jr., left, a columnist for the Arizona Daily Star, facilitates a panel discussion at the Jewish Community Relations Council’s private screening of “The Dream is Now” on May 13 at the Loft Cinema.

“This is emotional for me,” said Portillo. “I’m a dreamer in another way. I’m a dreamer for these young people, who are some of the most powerful, most motivated, most intelligent people I’ve met in 30 years of journalism, and I’ve met some pretty smart people.”

The event was sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona. “Throughout this year of working to renew and reinvigorate relations between our Jewish and Latino communities, we’ve repeatedly found deep cultural and historic commonalities that bind us together,” said JCRC Director Bryan Davis. “Even in this 30-minute documentary, the connections are made to Jewish history and to Tucson as a critical site of immigration. The JCRC was compelled to share ‘The Dream is Now,’ as a way to deepen the understanding of the impact that being undocumented has on individuals and families.”

It’s frustrating to have dreams and not be able to act on them, said Mario, one of the student panel members. “I felt so defeated in my senior year of high school,” he said, realizing that applying to college wasn’t the same for him as it was for his peers who were citizens.

Throughout history a new “other” has emerged whom people were told to fear, as the film articulated. In the political arena or in the media, illegal immigrants are presented as sneaking across the border to sell drugs or take away jobs from American citizens. The May 13 event served as a counter-argument, Davis told the AJP. All four undocumented students came here as young children with their parents, who had legal visas to work in the United States, which eventually expired.

“This is my home,” 21-year-old Jessica told the audience. “I’ve thought of myself leaving a thousand times, but this has been my home since age 8.” Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (known as DACA), a memorandum issued by President Barack Obama on June 15, 2012, was implemented by the Department of Homeland Security two months later. It has delayed deportation for some undocumented immigrants, including the four student panelists. But it’s a temporary stay. And DACA doesn’t protect family members who are unable to find legal jobs.

“Our governor has put so many stops up for us,” said Eduardo. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill that doesn’t allow DACA students to have drivers’ licenses. DACA recipients attending the University of Arizona must pay out-of-state tuition, which is four times as much as in-state.

Plus, work permits require a federal Social Security number, which they can’t get. “We can’t vote, so you are deciding our futures,” said Anna. “Politicians aren’t enemies or allies,” she noted. “It’s all politics. We have to work with them and negotiate.”

Members of Tucson’s Jewish community have stepped in to help save the lives of undocumented immigrants crossing the Sonoran Desert. Anne Lowe, as director of the Federation’s Northwest Division, cosponsored a JCRC bus trip to the border on Feb. 27. “I was profoundly moved by this trip,” said Lowe, adding that she then became involved with Humane Borders, a local organization of volunteers who replenish water tanks in the desert every weekend.

“I’ve been twice, once on Mother’s Day,” said Lowe, who’s learning to drive the truck that pumps 300 gallons of water at a time at Byrd Camp, a private property where migrants can get medical assistance from volunteer doctors and nurses. The camp is run by No More Deaths (No Mas Muertes). A third volunteer group, she said, is the Samaritans, who hope to find people suffering from dehydration in the desert, “before the angel of death does,” said Lowe, who recently gave a D’var Torah about this work at Congregation Bet Shalom.

After that bus trip, “I wanted to do humanitarian work. I think about how the Jews who tried to come to America on the St. Louis [from Hamburg, Germany] during the Holocaust were turned away. We in the Tucson Jewish community don’t want to turn our heads away.”

Lowe recently discovered that May 13 was the 75th anniversary of the voyage of the St. Louis. Years later, here in Tucson and around the country, dreamers “have created a movement through social media and peaceful protests,” said Portillo, at the Loft. One of the major websites helping immigrant students is www.scholar shipaz.org.

“My mom said, ‘If you leave, you’re self-deporting. You need to stay here and go to school’,” after her visa expired in 2011, said Anna. She listened, and became an activist who has lobbied politicians in Washington, D.C. “I’m fighting for a permanent solution for my family and friends,” said Eduardo, who has also gone to Washington. “I’ve always been close with my parents and grandparents. They were my mentors. In 2011, my grandfather got cancer and passed away. I couldn’t go see him” because of an expired visa. “I want justice for all. I want to fight for all those immigrants who are afraid.”