Adding a Jewish Face to the Undocumented

Roy Naim (right) speaks to Christina Blacken, the campaign manager of Do Something, the "country's largest not-for-profit for young people and social change." (Photo from Jewish Daily Forward video)

Roy Naim (right) speaks to Christina Blacken, the campaign manager of Do Something, the “country’s largest not-for-profit for young people and social change.” (Photo from Jewish Daily Forward video)

Roy Naim, 29, came to the U.S. at the age of 4 on a tourist visa with his family. They didn’t return, which means he has lived 25 years in New York as an undocumented immigrant.

Naim spent much of those years keeping a low profile, in fear of being deported but now, the Brooklyn Orthodox Jew has stepped out of the shadows and, according to a profile by Yermi Brenner for the Jewish Daily Forward, has “become the Jewish face of activism for immigration reform.” Naim has appeared on the cover of Time magazine and actively promotes immigration reform on social media.

What makes his story a bit different is the fact his background is not a common one among the statistics of the undocumented in this country.

(…) Three-quarters of the nation’s unauthorized immigrants are Hispanic, along with 11% from Asia, according to a 2009 Pew Research Study. Less than 2% are from the Middle East.

The New York Legal Assistance Group, an organization that offers free legal services, has received 342 applications on behalf of Jewish undocumented immigrants. Many others apply through private attorneys.

“We know there are thousands of undocumented Jews presently residing in New York City,” said Yisroel Schulman, who founded NYLAG in 1990, adding that it works with a network of 150 Jewish, community-based organizations.

Naim’s transformation from undocumented immigrant to undocumented immigrant activist came after he read “My Life as an Undocumented Immigrant,” a column by Pulitzer Prize winner Jose Antonio Vargas, a Philippine native who also arrived as a child on a tourist visa and stayed without legal documentation. It changed Naim’s perspective of who he himself was and assured him that there are others in a similar situation.

Roy Naim speaks in a panel, alongside the man who inspired him, Jose Antonio Vargas. (Photo by Nancy Adler via the Jewish Daily Forward)

Roy Naim (right) speaks in a panel alongside the man who inspired him, Jose Antonio Vargas. (Photo by Nancy Adler via the Jewish Daily Forward)

Naim identified with Vargas’s story, and also, for the first time, realized there were millions of others throughout the country who were with him in the same undocumented boat.

“It gave me hope,” Naim said in the living room of the south Brooklyn home he shares with his parents. “It gave (me) a reason to believe, a reason to stand up, a reason to go out there and speak up about who I am, about my story.”

Naim knew that his parents would not be supportive of his decision to expose himself, so he let them know about the Time magazine article — his coming-out event — a day before it was published, when it was too late for them to stop him. Naim said that his parents, who did not want to be interviewed, initially opposed his decision but became supportive when they saw how happy he was in his new role as a an activist.

Another perhaps unusual element of Naim’s story is the legal situation of his family members. After marrying Americans, his brother and sister legalized their status and became citizens. The brother then sponsored the parents for residency. They have their green cards and are planning to become citizens.

That left Naim as the only member of his family in legal limbo.

From Roy Naim's Facebook page on July 22, 2013.

From Roy Naim’s Facebook page on July 22, 2013.

So if anyone was to pay the consequences of exposure — possible deportation — it would be Naim, for whom that would mean going back to a society and a culture he knows little about. The former Israeli speaks only broken Hebrew with a heavy accent. He said that even though he’s spiritually connected to Israel, having to relocate to the Middle East at this point of his life seems like a foreign and crazy idea.

But coming out with his unauthorized status does not frighten Naim. Rather, he’s optimistic about what it does for him.

“My being public protects me because America loves stories,” Naim said while checking Twitter on his phone. “And when we hear about a good person — a person who is nice, who cares — we don’t want him deported; we want him in this country.”

Naim wants to continue speaking out for the undocumented, especially those who are Jewish, many of whom, like him in the past, lead fragmented lives without legal status.

“I don’t know any other Jewish undocumented people who are sharing their story like me,” Naim said. “And part of why I want to do this interview is to reach out and say: Whoever you are and wherever you are, know there’s somebody like you, that you are not alone.”

Visit the Jewish Daily Forward for a video that accompanies the profile on Roy Naim.

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