U.S. Immigration Reform Is a Jewish Problem, Too

An undocumented Orthodox Jew asks, 'Is it my Jewish obligation to self-deport?'

Immigration reform is not only a Latino issue, an Asian issue or an African issue, it is a Jewish issue. I am an undocumented Orthodox Jew and I might not be the only one that you know.

Like so many other aspiring citizens, my parents brought me to this country on a family trip. In my case, I was brought from Israel to Brooklyn and never left. With a slumping economy in Israel during the 1980s, the United States was the "goldene medina," or the golden land for my parents, just as it was for so many others including many of your parents and grandparents. My father started to work in construction and my mother took up odd jobs to keep our family afloat.

The decision to stay in America wasn’t easy for my family. Once leaving Israel, my mother never returned to see her mother or father again before they passed away.

In some ways, life was normal. Growing up I went to public school in southeast Brooklyn and then to a yeshiva, or religious seminary, for high school. I was valedictorian of my class, and a volunteer supporting cancer patients.

You may notice that a lot of undocumented youth are over-achievers—this is because we are trying to compensate, to prove we exist. By staying so involved in my community, I can distract myself from the fact that I don’t have a piece of paper that lets me cross the border again legally; an embarrassing lesson I learned when preparing to join a school trip to Canada.

I can’t drive a car or legally get a job. When a volunteer position opened up at an organization, I was devastated when I got a tearful call from the director telling me she couldn’t complete my background check because I don’t have a social security number, even though I was like family. I have so much to contribute and yet, something completely out of my control holds me back every day.

The Jewish people are a nation of laws. We have thousands of years of legal traditions and are obligated to follow the laws of the land, or "dina de-malkhuta dina." I take this obligation very seriously.

I have even asked myself and my rabbis, “is it my Jewish obligation to self-deport?” I remind myself that Jewish history from Abraham is rooted in immigration. From the time we left Egypt to the mass exile from Spain to the migration from Eastern Europe to the United States, our scripture has come to reflect being newcomers in society. Ultimately, Judaism is about compassion and contributing to improve whatever country we live in.

The current system is broken; the laws are a maze of contradictions to the point that they have encouraged people to immigrate or stay illegally. Nowhere does this mess of immigration laws make less sense than it does as it’s applied to DREAM Act candidates like me.

My heart and soul are in this country. I am American. I have had other undocumented Orthodox Jews come to me and thank me for speaking up and being vocal about my status. When the Maryland Dream Act was up for a public referendum, a Rabbi in Baltimore told the community to vote yes because of “Roy Naim.”

It certainly has not been easy. After I appeared on the cover of Time Magazine with other DREAMers, my mother was—unsurprisingly—incredibly nervous. She thought it was too dangerous. Now she, and others in my community are proud of me for standing up for what I know is right. This is why I raise my voice for the House of Representatives to create a timely and affordable path to citizenship, not just for Jews or for young people, like me, but for all undocumented people who came here to contribute to the goldene medina.

Roy Naim is a Brooklyn-resident, nonprofit volunteer, student of psychology and aspiring strategic coach.