Opinion

We're Proud as Jews, and as Immigrants, to Have Been Arrested for the Rights of Dreamers

When we sang and protested in the U.S. Capitol, we were rejecting attempts to pit one immigrant community against another. We'll continue to defend those most targeted by Trump’s bigotry

Capitol Hill police arrest Jewish activists protesting for passage of a clean DACA bill on Capitol Hill on January 17, 2018 in Washington, DC
TASOS KATOPODIS/AFP

Last Wednesday, I participated in an act of public theology - together with more than 80 American Jews, we sang, we chanted and we engaged in peaceful civil disobedience. After months of sustained activism in over a dozen states around the country, Bend the Arc pulled together 18 Jewish organizations in D.C. to demand a clean Dream Act and protections for vulnerable immigrant youth facing imminent deportation.

Together, singing Olam Hesed Yibaneh and Ozi V'zimrat Yah, we occupied a space in the Senate office building for over an hour until we were arrested and taken away by the U.S. Capitol police.

I felt proud to be a Jew embodying our tradition’s most central values and I felt the echoes of history flow through me as I wore my grandpa Leo’s prayer shawl, himself an immigrant who arrived in the U.S. as a twelve year old boy.

Demonstrators hold illuminated signs during a rally supporting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), or the Dream Act, outside the U.S. Capitol building. Washington, D.C. Jan. 18, 2018
בלומברג

In March, the Trump administration will let the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program expire. Young people who have been living, working, and studying here, are already at risk for detention or deportation from the only home most have ever known. Only the DREAM Act can protect them from the whims of Trump’s ICE forces – and last Friday was one of Congress’s last chances to act.

We at Bend the Arc Jewish Action refused to let our elected officials off the hook, and rallied our nationwide membership with a major request: Will you come to Washington DC, and risk arrest for those most targeted by Trump’s bigotry? Are you willing to get uncomfortable for what you believe in? Our members responded in force, from San Francisco to Texas; and Champaign, Illinois to Boston.

What I saw during the action itself, as we sat on the marble floor of the rotunda, was something new. It was the embodiment of our longtime goal to build a movement that is organizationally collaborative, multiracial, cross-denominational, and intergenerational.

Our youngest participant was just 18 years old, while the oldest had just turned 78 - she was arrested on her birthday. Dozens of rabbis representing reform, conservative, reconstructionist and orthodox communities were there. Leaders travelled across the country to join us.

There was something so healing about being in that space as Jews, without many of the usual territorial issues coming between us. It was a signal of what is possible when the Jewish community acts in true togetherness on progressive values.

The next morning, as we met over coffee and donuts to discuss the action, we were joined by a half dozen Dreamers, who had organized themselves overnight to track us down. Reyna, Antonio, German, Karla, Margalito and Cynthia each stood, tears falling, and told us things that will be forever part of my life:

"I can’t believe you would do this for us, when you don’t need to."

"[Watching you] I felt peace. I felt safe."

"I was surprised, I didn’t know why you were there and then when I heard you sing I realized it was for us."

On a human level, this is everything. Yes, we want a clean Dream Act and we won’t stop fighting with the Dreamers and other allies until we get it.

Capitol Hill police arrest Jewish activists protesting for passage of a clean DACA bill on Capitol Hill on January 17, 2018 in Washington, DC
TASOS KATOPODIS/AFP

But also knowing that the six people who joined us that morning, as well as the hundreds of Dreamers who stood nearby and supported us during the action, felt the support from our community is what truly makes my heart full.

For us to be able to offer just a moment of reprieve from the isolation they described feeling on a daily basis was, in some ways, the most important thing we did that day. And it gives me more hope and more determination to continue the sacred work we do.

For Bend the Arc and many of the other Jewish groups present, this wasn’t an isolated action, but an escalation.

We have been following the lead of immigrant-led organizations like United We Dream and the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), amplifying their heroic work and offering support behind the scenes. In recent months, our members made thousands of calls to their members of Congress at regional phone banks, organizing their neighbors and congregations to join the effort for the DREAM Act.  

And as I promised to the Dreamers with us on the Capitol grounds, we will keep on fighting for their parents, their grandparents, the aunties, their chosen family. We are adamant about the need for a clean DREAM Act, free of unacceptable so-called "compromises" that pit one set of immigrants against one another - we will not participate in tactics of divide and conquer.

Despite escalating pressure and a looming deadline, Congress has still failed to act, and President Trump continues to attack any progress on this issue. But I remain convinced that together, we will succeed.

These times demand more of us than we are accustomed to. And, we are rising to meet this moment. This week, we were heard. Our songs echoed through the halls, even interrupting senators’ television interviews. That night and the next morning, our images were everywhere - on TV news, Twitter, and in old-fashioned newspapers. For one day, at least, we were a part of this movement, a movement that is so much larger than ours, but to which we could at least contribute with love. 

Stosh Cotler is the CEO of Bend the Arc Jewish Action. Twitter: @JewishAction