Individual Rights and Collective Responsibilities

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February 1, 2011
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Rachel B. Tiven

On Saturday, December 18, 2010, Jews in synagogue read Parashat Vayechi, while in the U.S. Senate, the Development, Relief, and Education of Alien Minors Act — the DREAM Act — went down in defeat.

Vayechi closes the story of Joseph, who was brought to Egypt as a teenager — not of his own volition. He integrated himself into Egyptian society and utilized his talents to benefit his adopted country. Eventually, he brought his family to Egypt, and they flourished there for generations. However, they never escaped their status as outsiders.

In the Senate, DREAM activists held an ecumenical prayer vigil, a study-in at the Senate cafeteria, and celebrations for the young people who had walked from Florida to Washington to support the bill — people who had sat in and been arrested at Senate offices around the country, and who had gone on hunger strikes to call attention to the issue. These students told their stories of being brought to the United States as undocumented children, of graduating from American high schools, and of entering college or the U.S. military. For these young people, and for anyone who is currently an undocumented worker, there is almost no way to get a green card — not by graduating at the top of one’s class, not by going to college, not by joining the military. If undocumented immigrants are offered a job, they can’t take it. They aren’t eligible for federal college loans. Forty states deny them in-state tuition rates, even if they have lived in the state since they were toddlers. Like Joseph, they remain outsiders.

The DREAM Act would have created a path to citizenship for these young people who were brought to the United States as children, for these Josephs. On that Shabbat in December, though, Americans legislators remained stuck in the narrow place, the Mitzrayim, the Egypt; they chose to keep out children who have so much to offer.

Ironically, on the same day that the DREAM Act died, the Senate voted to repeal the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military. Sixty-five senators supported the bill to end this institutional discrimination. In repealing the ban, the Senate recognized that rejecting people who seek to serve the country, to belong to its vital institutions, is ultimately self-defeating. Unfortunately, that lesson did not translate into supporting young students whose primary goal is to be fully American. Twelve Senators who supported gays in the military opposed the DREAM Act; five Democrats and seven Republicans.

The irony is that as overt bigotry against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people becomes less acceptable — though it certainly has not disappeared — anti-immigrant xenophobia is on the rise. Smears and generalizations about immigrants are routinely aired in the media and on the floor of Congress. American Jews should be mindful of past antisemitism, and of our presence as a tiny minority in this country; we should reject any moves to scapegoat, stereotype, or make false generalizations regarding any group.

American Jewish support of LGBT rights is a point of pride. However, as a community, we cannot commend ourselves for defending the rights of the individual if we do not zealously champion immigrant rights as well. The Torah explicitly requires this of us as descendents of Joseph and his brothers: “When strangers sojourn with you in your land, you shall not do them wrong. The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Leviticus 19:33-34)

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Rachel B. Tiven is executive director of Immigration Equality, a national organization fighting for equal immigration rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and HIV-positive community.

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