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Why I went to Washington to March with Dreamers

March 16, 2018

By Sarah Coletti

In late February the Supreme Court, in Jennings v. Rodriguez, decided that some immigrants could be held indefinitely without a bond hearing. ( https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/03/jennings-v-rodriguez/555224/ )

In high school I took a course from a teacher who later switched careers to become a lawyer working for the ACLU. The course was on constitutional law and we got to read the written opinions and dissents of landmark Supreme Court cases, including the Dred Scott case. I was attending an inner city public alternate school – big on mission and small on funds. That course, taught by Mrs. Shestack, was the best class I have ever taken. While it did not turn me into a lawyer, it gave me a great deal of respect for the Supreme Court, for the Bill of Rights, and made me a lifelong supporter of the ACLU.

The recent decision of the Supreme Court chilled me. The memory of Mrs. Shestack drove me to find and read Justice Breyer’s dissent (https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/583/15-1204/dissent5.html. In it Justice Breyer says:

No one can claim, nor since the time of slavery has anyone to my knowledge successfully claimed, that persons held within the United States are totally without constitutional protection.

My husband, Michael, and I had already floated the idea to one another of taking some action to mark the March 5thdeadline ending DACA. We wanted to support the Dreamers. Reading of the Supreme Court’s decision made our decision clear – fueled by outrage, we would go to D.C.

I sent an email to my rabbi, Rabbi Mike Rothbaum, asking if he knew anyone going to the event led by United We Dream named “Enough Political Games, Protect Immigrant Youth Now!”  Bend The Arc Jewish Action was one of more than a dozen supporters of the organization of young immigrants. Rabbi Mike put us in touch with Max Socol, the Washington organizer for Bend the Arc.

On the morning of March 5th, Michael and I arrived in front of the Smithsonian Museum of American History, near the Washington Monument. Already, hundreds of people, many with orange hats and some wearing homemade butterfly wings, were gathered on the National Mall. We found the small Bend the Arc contingent, collected signs (“Jews for Dreamers!”), T-shirts, and met people from D.C., NY, PA, Chicago, and MA. Michael went to ask someone about the butterfly wings and wound up asking Cristina Jimenez, who is a founder and the director of United We Dream. She said that monarch butterflies migrate from the U.S. to Mexico without encountering walls or barriers and that it is why it is a symbol for young immigrants.

Prior to marching, faith leaders and activists gathered with Stosh Cotler, director of Bend the Arc, and our rabbis, cantors, and other Jews, to introduce themselves. Linda Sarsour of the Women’s March introduced some prominent Muslim clerics and leaders. Ady Barkan, a well-known activist who lives with ALS, spoke as did Cristina Jimenez. We all sang together.

The dreamers led the way on the march to the front of the Capitol building and led us in chants and songs. Around 900 people walked. In front of the Capitol we tied tissue paper flowers to lines on the lawn to spell out the word ‘Unafraid’. About 100 people were arrested that day in two planned civil disobedience events. One group blocked an intersection on Independence Avenue for several hours. A second group, including the faith leaders and prominent activists, marched on Speaker Paul Ryan’s office.

Those of us associated with Bend the Arc who were not willing to be arrested were matched up with a group of dreamers from Nebraska to accompany them on a visit to their representative. A few jokes were made about sending the Jews to see Rep. Bacon.

There were about 25 of us altogether and we completely filled his outer office. Once there, the Nebraska constituents spoke, telling their stories. Often, as they told of their family’s struggles – of a sibling who was deported, parents working multiple jobs, a father afraid to attend school events and unable to get treatment for his mental illness, a single mother escaping danger with toddler in tow – the speaker would break down in tears. When that happened the group would break into a chant, “We see you. We love you,” until the speaker could regain composure. The stories contained triumphs too – students who earned college degrees and with DACA in place were able to get jobs in their field, or who were finally able to go to college.

Rep. Bacon’s chief of staff came out of the inner office and stood next to the office administrator to listen to the stories and chants. On several occasions, the Capitol police came to the door to ask whether they should help empty the office. Each time the chief of staff waved them off, and said that it was ok. After close to an hour, Rep. Bacon emerged with the County Commissioner of Omaha and they both greeted the visitors. Rep. Bacon stated his position clearly – that while he supported something to help DACA recipients, he did not support efforts to allow their parents to legally remain in the country.

When we left Rep. Bacon’s office, everyone felt drained. We stood in a circle in the hallway for a few minutes to take a breath, gather strength, and think about those who we were fighting for. We gave hugs and handshakes to the inspiring Nebraska young people who had shared their stories and led the way on this day.

Michael and I stayed an extra day in D.C. to visit some of monuments in the area – Thomas Jefferson, George Mason, FDR, Rev. Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln. At each of these monuments there are words etched in stone that speak to the values of America, of democracy, of unity, and of valuing each other’s rights and humanity. 

Later, we picked up a Washington Post and read an article that said Attorney General Jeff Sessions is eliminating a requirement that asylum applicants get a full hearing. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/social-issues/advocates-sessions-decision-to-toss-rule-on-asylum-hearings-endangers-thousands/2018/03/07/24b63b24-2214-11e8-94da-ebf9d112159c_story.html)  I think Mrs. Shestack would have been appalled. We all should be. And we should all be as unafraid as the young people of United We Dream to fight for our American values.

Tue, October 22 2019 23 Tishrei 5780