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A victory for immigrants in California

A victory for immigrants in California

Ellis Island Recruitment Poster

A recruitment poster encouraging immigrants to build new lives in California hangs at Ellis Island.

Last summer I took my children to Ellis Island to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors. We stood in the “Great Hall” and looked out at the Statue of Liberty and the port of New York. As we stood in that cavernous room, where immigrants learned what their fate would be, I thought of my great-grandparents who had come through the port of New York at the turn of the 20th century. I thought of my father who immigrated from Iran by himself at the age of 17. I thought of my aunts, uncles and cousins who found safety in this country following the Iranian Revolution of the 1970s. I thought about the lives that each of them created in California, and I marveled at the courage and determination that can be found in all who have immigrated to this country searching for what my family was searching for: a better life for themselves and for their families.

Last week I was very proud of my home state when Governor Brown signed into law SB-54, “The California Values Act,” landmark legislation that provides key protections for immigrants in California against federal mass deportation policies. In enacting this law, California has taken a significant step towards disentangling local law enforcement from immigration enforcement, thereby reducing the number of community members funneled into the cruel and inhumane immigration detention and deportation system. 

SB-54 was the main legislative priority of Reform CA, a project of the Religious Action Center that seeks to organize Reform congregations throughout the state into a social justice network working together and across lines of difference for lasting, structural change in the state. For months, Reform clergy and congregants worked with diverse coalition partners to pass this legislation. We worked on this legislation because it is the Jewish thing to do. To ‘care for the stranger in our midst’ is an ancient imperative, not only because the Torah commands us 36 times in 36 nuanced ways, but because we know all too well what it means to be the stranger.  We know not just because our ancient ancestors were strangers in Egypt, but because throughout our history, time and again, our people have been forced into exile.

Reform congregations around the state held nearly 50 in-district meetings with state legislators to talk to them about SB-54. Our efforts reached a peak when 100 Reform rabbis, cantors and congregants from around the state gathered in Sacramento for the Reform CA Lobby Day.  We met with bill sponsor and Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de Leon and urged him not to weaken the bill in his negotiations with Governor Brown and the Sheriff’s Association. We met with Governor Brown’s staff and shared the same message. In the end, the worst amendments were avoided and the core protections of the bill remained in place. 

I am ever mindful that my life, and the state I live in, has benefited from the hard work and big dreams of immigrants, both the ones from whom I am descended, as well as the ones I am honored to call my neighbors. The passing of SB-54 is just one way the State of California, and the Reform Jewish community, is letting our immigrant families know that we value them.


Rabbi Mona Alfi is the senior rabbi at Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento, California. She is also a member of the Urgency of Now Immigrant Justice Campaign Leadership Team

Published: 10/10/2017