The deadline President Trump has set for the passage of legislation to adjust the status of hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children by their parents is March 5, just days after Jews worldwide celebrate the festival of Purim. During Purim, which begins Wednesday night, we read the Book of Esther, which tells the story of a vain, corrupt leader willing to sell out a vulnerable people for his own convenience — and invites us to consider the obligations of those not targeted to those who are.
In the story, we meet Ahasuerus, king of Persia — who may or may not be modeled after Xerxes I. He was quick to anger, easily bribed, and fond of displaying the “vast riches of his kingdom and the splendid glory of his majesty.”
His top adviser is a vicious despot named Haman. When Mordechai, a Jew, refuses to bow down to Haman, the aide decides to “do away with all the Jews” in the kingdom as revenge. A personal grudge turns quickly into bias against an entire people and the plans to destroy them.
Haman pitches this idea to Ahasuerus on the grounds that a certain people in his land are “different” from other people, and thus not worth protecting; further, Haman says, he will deposit 10,000 talents of silver to the royal treasury if the king is willing to agree to draw an edict for their destruction. Ahasuerus, it turns out, has no problem using these people as pawns if it benefits him.
The name of the holiday, Purim, comes from the word “pur,” or lot, referring to the casting of lots to determine on which arbitrary date the Jews’ fate will be unsealed.
This year, the date on which about 690,000 people who had previously been covered by the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — Americans in everything but their paperwork — become imperiled is just as arbitrary. These young people were brave enough to come out of the shadows and put their trust in our government. But now their status hangs in the balance because of a date that may as well have been picked out of a hat — six months after Trump happened to have made his original arbitrary announcement ending the program.
For now, things are up in the air. Two federal courts have blocked the White House’s decision to end DACA, at least temporarily, although these rulings are certain to be appealed; the Justice Department has asked the Supreme Court to review those opinions, which it reportedly has done behind closed doors. However, the justices on Monday turned down the Trump administration’s request to immediately review lower court decisions, instead allowing these rulings to play out in lower courts — which could take months or more. Attempts to make DACA permanent have failed in the Senate, in part because of aggressive veto threats by Trump.
If Congress and the courts do not come up with a permanent fix, though, 983 people could lose their protected status every day — nearly 30,000 people a month, on average, for two years — as DACA recipients’ permits start to expire. They will lose their work authorization and their ability to travel abroad. Many will lose in-state tuition and driver’s licenses. All will be put at risk for deportation, many from the only home they’ve ever really known.
For this to happen so close to Purim is evocative for anyone who knows the story of the holiday; the book of Esther, at least, has a happy ending. Ahasuerus’s second wife, Esther, was a closeted Jew. As Haman’s plot came to light, Mordechai visited her to persuade her to lobby on behalf of her people. She balked, initially — those who approached the king without being summoned risked being put to death. But Mordechai pressed her. Even if she was safe, even if she was unlikely to be affected by Haman’s edict, he told her, she had an obligation to endanger her life to save those who would be. In fact, he said, her privilege carried with it the responsibility to put herself on the line for those in need. For, he told her, “who knows but that you have come to your position for such a time as this?”
We, all of us documented American citizens, are Esther right now. Some of our own are in grave danger — people who have been living with us, studying and working with us, raising children in our communities. Many of us are safe by mere luck or circumstance. My own family happened to be fleeing pogroms at a time when immigration policies were much more open. The lot, the pur, fell in my family’s favor. Of course, this is not the only American story; some families have been on this land for thousands of years, and others were forcibly brought here as part of enslavement and trafficking. And yes, many other Americans came without paperwork — tired, poor, yearning to breathe free. For those of us who are secure in our citizenship status now, this is our time to speak out. Who knows but that we have not come to our position for such a time as this?
For most of us, demanding a solution for DACA recipients and other “dreamers” — a solution that doesn’t also close off future immigration to our nation of immigrants, a solution that doesn’t pour billions of dollars into an unnecessary and offensive symbol on the southern border — does not carry with it a life-or-death risk. It may be inconvenient, it may be unpopular, it may be unwelcome. But we need to be willing to put ourselves out there; to call and protest, to pressure our elected representatives with the ferocity and furor we brought to resisting the repeal of the Affordable Care Act and the travel ban, to risk arrest, to support organizations working on the front lines. At Avodah, where I work, we place Service Corps members at Mil Mujeres, New York Legal Assistance Group, the National Immigrant Justice Center, the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition and others. Many other organizations are stepping forward to do the same.
Esther was willing to step up and even act “contrary to the law” on behalf of her people. And at the end of the Purim story, the Jews were saved. As part of this happy resolution, Esther sent a dispatch throughout the land with words of truth and peace.
And what about us? How will we intercede to change the lots that have been cast?