Thursday, November 15, 2007

Jewish group bands with Latinos against discrimination.

Leaders of a national Jewish group say the hate being directed at Mexican immigrants resonates with their own experience. So they've taken up the cause and convened a series of meetings and workshops with immigrant and Mexican-American leaders, including some from North Texas.

Laura González, a Dallas college professor, and Jacobo Kupersztoch, a Dallas biologist, were among about three dozen Latinos from around the country who made the trek to Washington for sessions on organizing, fundraising and advocacy.

The American Jewish Committee co-sponsored the three-day workshop with Mexico's Institute for Mexicans Abroad, which includes an advisory council established by the country's Foreign Relations Ministry.

And immigration – an issue that has polarized the nation – took center stage."The whole immigration debate is not a Latino issue; it is an American issue," said Dina Siegel Vann, the director of the Latino and Latin America initiative at the American Jewish Committee.

Ms. Siegel Vann grew up in Mexico City – and was part of the small but active Jewish community of about 40,000 there.
"From a moral perspective, Jews feel that having successfully incorporated into the U.S., they now feel a responsibility to help other minorities," she said.

Beyond that, there are practical motivations, she said. The Jewish population is in decline in the U.S., she said, and now numbers about 5 million. The Hispanic population is growing and numbers 44 million.

"Both communities have a self-interest in building a coalition," she said. "The only way you can advance an agenda is through a coalition."

The American Jewish Committee has long been a strong supporter of immigration. Earlier this year, the AJC supported a broad plan to overhaul U.S. immigration laws. After the Senate failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform, the AJC urged Congress to continue working on a "balanced and bipartisan bill."

"The Senate's failure to advance the immigration legislation only prolongs the national crisis in failing to deal humanely with the 12 million undocumented immigrants in our country," said Jeffrey Sinensky, AJC's director of domestic policy.

'Responsibility to lobby'

At the Washington meeting, workshops focused on everything from effective lobbying and letter-writing to the power of personal relationships to a point-by-point presentation on advocating on Capitol Hill.

"Script your meeting – practice speaking. ... Don't be afraid to show your passion, but don't let your passion overshadow your credibility," read one handout.

The group members met with legislative aides and with Rep. Howard Berman, a veteran Democratic legislator from Los Angeles who has supported measures to legalize immigrants who are in the U.S. unlawfully.

They also met with various leaders of the Jewish community in the Washington area, and with Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhán, whose grandfather immigrated to Mexico from Armenia.

"Now, more than ever, we must underscore a self-evident truth: Migrants are not a threat to the security of the U.S.," he said, according to a transcript of his remarks. "They are important actors in the fabric of what makes America great."

Mr. Kupersztoch said he identifies with the plight of illegal immigrants. "I was exposed to discrimination as a Jew in Mexico and exposed to discrimination as a Mexican in the U.S.," he said.

And he hopes to use what he learned to set up a network of people, possibly retirees, who can establish phone trees and e-mail trees to call on Congress, the state Legislature and municipalities when key issues arise.

The Jewish community is "so very organized, and I came away very positively impressed," he said. By comparison, he said, "we are not organized. The Latino community is not organized."

Another idea calls for developing training plans that would enhance the skills of the many blue-collar workers from Mexico in North Texas, he said.

Ms. González, who is active in the League of Women Voters of Dallas, said political advocacy was of keen interest.
"What we share with the Jewish community is discrimination," Ms. González said.

"They convinced us that it is not only our right and responsibility to lobby," she said. "We [as] U.S. citizens have the right to go and lobby for the issues that relate to our interests."

Mr. Kupersztoch and Ms. González both served on the first advisory board of Mexico's Foreign Relations Ministry from 2003 through 2005.

Praise and doubt

In North Texas, some immigrant leaders praised the AJC effort.

For years, some have discussed the merits of U.S. Latinos acting as a lobby on Mexican issues, just as U.S. Jews have done on behalf of Israel.

And for nearly as many years, Mexico's halting march toward democracy impeded such moves because Mexican-Americans wanted little association with the often-corrupt ruling party of Mexico.

But that political party rules no longer. And the current crackdown against Mexicans living illegally in the U.S. has served to galvanize many members of the community.

The Jewish people "have suffered much more than we have, and for that reason they are stronger than we are," said Jorge Navarrete, who served on the advisory board of the Institute for Mexicans Abroad. "That's why we need to take advantage of them as an example for ourselves. Hopefully, what these people [who've attended AJC seminars] learned will be shared with others."

Others question the AJC measure.

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that wants restrictions on both legal and illegal immigration, said many times an organization's leadership doesn't represent the rank and file.

"Jewish opinion on immigration tends to probably be more sympathetic than the general population," said Mr. Mehlman, who is Jewish and co-founded the now-dormant American Jewish Immigration Policy Institute. "But it is not hugely out of step with the general population."

Mr. Mehlman noted that FAIR also helped form a group of Hispanics against illegal immigration and African-Americans against illegal immigration in 2006, as protests for immigrant rights swept through such U.S. cities as Dallas, Los Angeles and Chicago.

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