What jail taught me about Congress

If I learned one thing in jail, it’s that the greatest acts of courage come from the people who have the most to lose.

On May Day, I joined other faith leaders, undocumented immigrants, DREAMERS, families, and advocates to march from the Capitol Building to the White House. We were there to demand action on immigration reform and protest the administration’s aggressive deportation policy. Approximately one thousand of us gathered there —just shy of the 1,120 people who are deported each day.

To be clear, I’m the director of a national political advocacy organization, Bend the Arc Jewish Action. I spend my days figuring out how best to move legislation through Congress: which buttons to push; who to pressure; how to leverage public opinion to hold lawmakers accountable to their constituents. Cynicism is a common workplace hazard, especially when one’s vehicle for advancing social justice is the 113th Congress. We are no doubt in for a long, hard fight to achieve comprehensive immigration reform. But the march on the Capitol and protest at the White House showed me that Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and the recalcitrant Republican caucus are no match for the burning determination of millions of families who are fighting for their right to exist in America.

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A dozen of us were arrested on civil disobedience charges that day. For progressive activists who are also American citizens, being arrested for civil disobedience is a way to prove a point, show solidarity, and bring attention to a cause we care about. For undocumented immigrants, getting arrested means risking everything. As we were loaded into the police vans, a young undocumented couple handed their six-year-old child to a relative. A sixteen-year-old girl said goodbye to her older sister and parents, who had forbidden her from participating in the protest because she was a minor. Families are separated by the authorities like this every day except usually the arrests are not in view of the White House, and usually the families are not reunited after a few hours. Instead, they are precipitated by a midnight knock on the door by ICE agents, round ups at workplaces, or a “papers please” traffic stop that gets someone bussed over the border.

As an American citizen, these are not risks I face, but they stir up memories from the not-too-distant past when Jews were persecuted in their home countries, and sought safety by immigrating to America. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, more than 2.5 million Jews came to the U.S. from Europe. Many came through Ellis Island, and many came without papers as stowaways in the hulls of boats from Cuba and the Philippines, or crossed the Canadian border in the trunks of cars. We put down roots here, but we were not always tolerated. The Immigration Act of 1924 established quotas to staunch the flow of Jews to the U.S., with the purpose of protecting the “distinct American identity” – an identity that did not include us.

Well, in the last century, the characters have shifted, but the script has stayed the same.

During the hours we spent in our jail, we shared our families’ immigration stories, and why we had decided to participate in the protest. People were surprised to find out that I—the only non-Latino in the cell—had not been born in the United States. Like some of them, I had been brought to America as a child, in my case at two years old. It was simply an accident of birth that I was born to American citizens, and therefore had citizenship myself. That accident means that I don’t have to worry about being forced to leave the country I call home. I don’t have to worry about my family being forcibly separated. And I don’t have to live with the paralyzing fear that one day, they might come for me, too.

One couple—wanting their kids to grow up with the same sense of belonging that I did—had kept their immigration status secret even from their own children. This protest was the beginning of their political activism, their first time taking part in the deeply American practice of petitioning the government to recognize and represent them. This was the same couple that told their teenaged daughter not to protest with them, because she was not old enough yet. Rest assured, if Congress continues to drag its feet to pass comprehensive immigration reform, in two years she will be right alongside them forcing the government to face her family.

Changing an unjust public policy is an uphill battle that every minority group in America has to fight, and a battle that over generations has forced this country to live up to the ideals in our constitution. In America’s immigrant community, pressure has built to a boiling point. We can be sure that until we achieve comprehensive immigration reform, Thursday’s protest won’t be the last.

Susskind is director of Bend the Arc Jewish Action, a national organization inspired by Jewish values and the steadfast belief that Jewish Americans, regardless of religious or institutional affiliations, are compelled to create justice and opportunity for Americans.

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