By Emma R. Ayers
Shelly Peskin is quarantining in New Jersey right now. Of course, like the rest of us, she’d rather be doing something else. She’d like to be back at Avodah, living in the Washington branch of the Jewish service corps where, through CASA de Maryland, she’s got an intense focus on helping immigrants — making sense of paperwork, navigating government bureaucracy and, ultimately, feeling as secure as they can on America’s shores.
The 23 year old discovered her zeal for immigration when she was young. And now, she’s able to do some good squarely in the nexus of Judaism and social advocacy.
What was it that helped you to decide to focus on immigration?
My synagogue was in the middle of a thriving Latinx community in New Brunswick, N.J. My passion was sparked again in college when I took a course titled “Far-Right Politics in Western Democracies.” When learning about the far right’s platform, we spent weeks covering anti-immigrant sentiment. We learned about certain nations closing their borders to immigrants and refugees — and this hatred for people fueled my fire.
Which immigrants, specifically, are you helping right now?
In my job, I mainly assist people who have Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. My clients have been in the United States for the majority of their lives but, unfortunately, their immigration status isn’t currently a path to citizenship.
What sort of hoops are immigrants having to jump through right now?
The end of the Supreme Court session is June 15, so the decision whether or not to continue the DACA program will be coming out any day now. So right now, my clients are fearful of what the Supreme Court will decide. We’re encouraging clients to renew as soon as possible so their applications will be at least pending during the decision days.
Has COVID-19 made this more difficult for them?
COVID-19 has made it difficult for undocumented folks, because they’re not eligible for unemployment benefits, nor do they receive government stimulus checks. Undocumented people also tend to be afraid to be hospitalized because of potential exposure to ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]. This leads to more cases, and ultimately more deaths.
How many immigrants would you say you serve in a given day? How about over the course of the year?
Over the course of one day, I see two clients. On days we do what’s called legal intakes, I give Know your Rights presentations to at least 20 people and direct them where they need to be in order to see the lawyers who will help them.
Over the course of this past year, I’ve seen over 200 DACA clients and I’ve served over 400 during those legal intakes.
Obviously, there are so many people in need of help. What can the Jewish community do to best serve immigrants in need of help? What changes need to be made?
The Jewish community can help by being allies to the immigrant community. So step up, be involved. There are so many changes to be made including being more educated about barriers immigrants face every day. We were once strangers in the land of Egypt and we have an obligation to pursue social justice for all.
What has been the best part about this role for you?
The best part about my role at Avodah and CASA de Maryland has been how much I’ve learned. I’m so grateful for all the tools I’ve been given by both CASA and Avodah through day to day work and Avodah programming — to be the best activist I can, going into my future career.
Is Avodah getting back together now that the Washington area is starting to open up?
My office is looking to reopen very soon. Even so, my work with Avodah has never ground to any sort of halt. Unlike other service-year programs, we never stopped working at our placements or shut down because of the pandemic.
Emma R. Ayers is managing editor of Young Voices.