As the Latino population continues to increase in the United States (54 million, 17 percent of population, and estimated by 2060 to reach nearly 129 million, 31 percent of population) and Latinos gain more political clout, the Jewish community is working to build alliances between the two communities on issues such as immigration reform and relations with Israel. The American Jewish Committee (AJC) is taking the lead in strengthening Latino-Jewish ties through its Washington, D.C.-based Arthur and Rochelle Belfer Institute for Latino and Latin American Affairs.
Last week, AJC’s ACCESS DC program for Jewish young professionals and Bridging America Project that works toward comprehensive immigration reform hosted an event at the Mexican Cultural Institute called “Child Immigration and the Current Crisis: Latino and Jewish Perspectives.” The panelists included Chilean-Jewish immigrant Sandra Grossman, an immigration attorney who discussed the border crisis and the more than 68,000 unaccompanied children caught crossing the U.S. border since October, thousands of whom are being held in detention centers; Moldovan-Jewish immigrant Lana Alman, who talked about her family’s experience immigrating from the Former Soviet Union and her work with Latino immigrants; and Mexican immigrant and “dreamer” Carlos Padilla, who is a coordinator at United We Dream, the largest immigrant youth-led organization in the nation.
Padilla talked about his struggles growing up undocumented in California and said that Congress needs to find a permanent solution by passing the DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) that would give students a chance to earn legal status following a rigorous and lengthy process. “We believe in contributing to our country and continuing to build our communities,” said Padilla.
Chelsea Hanson, AJC’s assistant director for immigration policy, told Washington Jewish Week that in the long term her organization is focused on moving comprehensive immigration reform – such as the DREAM Act and the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013 (S.744) that already passed the Senate – through Congress. AJC will push for a House version of the bill to pass so the House and Senate can go into conference. The group also is working on administrative reforms. “We are trying to get President Obama to pass an executive action to provide relief to the undocumented immigrants who have been affected by the broken immigration system,” said Hanson.
In the short term, after the midterm elections they plan to push the administration to reform the detention system and will push Congress to provide more funding for the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Health and Human Services so they have the resources to address the crisis at the southern border.
Hanson said that since AJC was founded in 1906 by European immigrants, the issue of immigration has always been a top concern for the organization. She also said Jews have a special moral obligation to fix the nation’s broken immigration system.
“The Torah tells us we were strangers in a strange land. And so we must also protect the strangers who are coming in today. So through those instructions we have a strong moral imperative,” said Hanson.
“Also, most of the Jews in the United States today are descendants of immigrants themselves. Many fled for economic reasons and many fled for religious persecution reasons, so I think it touches directly on American Jewish history to work on this issue.”
AJC is also working on promoting trilateral relations between the United States, Latin America and Israel, a task that has become more challenging following this past summer’s Gaza conflict when five Latin American countries — Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Peru and El Salvador — withdrew their ambassadors from Tel Aviv.
“I think it’s more important than ever to be building relationships with people from Latin America and with the Latino communities here in the U.S.,” said Cassie Chesley, AJC Washington Goldman Bridge Fellow. “Sometimes in the same countries where we’ve seen this anti-Israel sentiment, the Jewish communities feel vulnerable and unsafe, so there is a correlation there.”
Stephanie Guiloff, associate director of the AJC Latino Institute, is from Chile and said the country has the largest Palestinian population outside the Middle East. That community is vocal and influence politics and media so this past summer was very difficult for Chile’s Jewish community, which numbers around 20,000 compared to around 400,000 Palestinians.
To counter negative perceptions of Israel, AJC takes non-Jewish Latino opinion leaders to Israel through its Project Interchange. “We allow them to see Israel in all of its complexity and diversity to better understand the challenges and opportunities. They see Israel firsthand and then come back and have a magnifying voice in trying to get their fellow citizens to understand what Israel and the Middle East is all about.”
Guiloff said the goal of AJC Latino is to build bridges to the Latin American community so they see the Jewish community either in the U.S. or Latin America as concerned with the well-being of the country and all minorities. “We are one minority among many minorities and our success goes hand in hand with success of everybody else.”