When Brenda was 12 years old, she and her family came to Baltimore from Mexico. They sought refuge from threats leveled against them because of her father — a politician attempting to clean up corruption in his native country.
Because of the Dream Act, Brenda has been able to live legally in the United States and work in Baltimore City Public Schools.
But she and 800,000 other “Dreamers” may lose that protection if the Trump administration, as well as Congress, allows the Dream Act to expire next March. The administration rescinded the Deferred Action for Children Arrivals program in September.
“I’m one of the many ‘Dreamers’ that will not be able to renew their work permits after March,” Brenda told a roomful of immigrants’ rights advocates and other interested parties. “But I’m here and I’m fighting and I’m strong.”
About 50 people gathered in the Stevenson residence of Rabbis Nina Beth Cardin and Avram Reisner on Nov. 19 to learn more about the state of immigration locally and across the U.S.
Among the speakers were Lydia Walther-Rodriguez, lead community organizer of the immigrants’ rights group CASA of Baltimore; Molly Amster, Baltimore director of Jews United for Justice; and Rabbi Linda Joseph, spiritual leader of Owings Mills’ Har Sinai Congregation.
The gathering was cosponsored by Chizuk Amuno Congregation, Har Sinai and JUFJ.
“There are people that come here who dream about being American, and through no fault of their own, raised in this country, feel American in every way and are in this precarious place,” said Rabbi Joseph, a native of Melbourne, Australia. “We were all immigrants. It’s about widening the tent and welcoming strangers. Let’s find a way to make this country hospitable … and feel like home to the most vulnerable.”
Walther-Rodriguez told the group that CASA of Baltimore is fighting “for permanent legislation and a pathway to citizenship, not just a promise … for a clean Dream Act.” She said the group will continue to oppose the financing of a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico, as well as funding to hire more immigration officers and carry out mass deportations.
Amster said working on behalf of immigrants is a top priority to JUFJ. “We’re now, along with CASA, shifting our energy to work on the Dream Act for this upcoming session,” she said. “Open your hearts and your wallets to fight with CASA and JUFJ.”
In her moving talk, Brenda spoke about how her family lived under the constant threat of politically motivated kidnappings and murders in Mexico. In 2001, she said, her family crawled through a hole under a fence at the Arizona-Mexico border — after her parents spent tens of thousands of dollars to attempt to immigrate legally – to relocate to the U.S.
For a while, they had to go into hiding from immigration officers, Brenda said.
The family wound up in Baltimore. A good student, Brenda dreamed of becoming a forensic doctor. But at age 17, she said she learned what “illegal and undocumented” means.
“My struggle started in 2006 because I was trying to apply for college,” she said. Brenda’s high school academic counselor explained that she could not apply for higher education because she did not have any documentation of U.S. citizenship.
“My dreams came down that day,” Brenda said, still emotional from the memory. “[But] that’s when I started fighting. I wasn’t going to become a statistic.”
Brenda began advocacy work with CASA. When the Dream Act went into effect in 2012, she said she wasted no time registering.
During the question-and-answer period, Owings Mills resident Nicki Schonfeld said some of her friends who are legal immigrants resent undocumented immigrants who demand legal protections and citizenship rights. Schonfeld said she sympathizes with their reaction, but wants to understand how to address the illegal immigration issue in a broader context.
“Avadim hayenu, we were slaves,” Rabbi Reisner responded. “It means just because it was hard for me doesn’t mean I should see to it that’s it’s hard for somebody else. But I should see to it that it’s not hard for anybody else, because no one should need to go through what I went through.”
Said Debbie Rosenberg, a teacher from East Baltimore: “The immigration system is broken. What’s happened is that we’re creating a system [in which] we’re not getting the labor we need, we’re not allowing [immigrants] to become citizens in a productive way, to pay taxes … to get an education, to get jobs. … But if we have immigration systems that are logical and affordable, then people will be able to come here following the law.”
Brenda, Rabbi Cardin and Walther-Rodriguez implored audience members to attend the Rally for a Clean Dream Act on Dec. 6 in Washington, D.C.
“We’re going to the capital to say, ‘We’re here to stay, we’re here to make this country greater, and we’re here to do it legally,’” Brenda said. “We’re organizing and making sure that our voices are being heard.”
Rabbi Cardin reminded the group that the rally will be held on the 30th anniversary of the historic Freedom Sunday for Soviet Jews mass gathering.
“Thirty years ago to the day, Dec. 6, 1987, 250,000 Jews and friends gathered in Washington to tell [former Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev to let our people go,” she said. “[Now] we’re being asked to say, ‘Let our people stay.’ We’re being asked to bring justice to our people who are here.”
For information about the Dec. 6 rally, visit CASA of Baltimore’s Facebook page. For upcoming Jews United for Justice events, visit jufj.org .
Melissa Gerr is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.
Photo of Lydia Walther-Rodriguez, lead community organizer of the immigrants’ rights group CASA of Baltimore, speaking to the group, by Melissa Gerr
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