While attending an Erev Shabbat service at Temple Habonim in Barrington on Feb. 17, I had the privilege of listening to Rodrigo Pimentel tell his story. Pimentel is a soft-spoken but extremely focused and determined 19-year-old who is enrolled in a computer science program at the University of Rhode Island.
What makes Pimentel’s story so compelling and, in many ways, so troubling, is that, through no fault of his own, he is an undocumented immigrant. His parents brought him from Portugal to Rhode Island in 1998, when he was only 10 months old, and then they overstayed their visitors’ visas in order to pursue the economic opportunities available here.
Pimentel told us that at first he was only dimly aware that he and his parents were living in the country illegally, in the shadows. Over time he began to realize that while his friends’ families took vacations, his family never traveled anywhere – but he didn’t ask why.
Even when his parents first told him that they were ilegals, it was a word that held little meaning for him.
By the time Pimentel became a teenager, he understood that being “illegal” carried severe social and economic consequences for his family; especially in the beginning, his father had to work long hours far away from home at subsistence wages.
However, when President Barack Obama signed an executive order in 2012 that created Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), Pimentel’s prospects brightened considerably. As a result of DACA, even though he was undocumented, he would be allowed to work, to pay taxes and to obtain a driver’s license.
With the election of Donald Trump as president, Pimentel’s future has darkened once again. Trump’s aggressive anti-immigrant rhetoric, as well as his early executive actions, do not bode well for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in our country – including those 750,000 individuals who, like Pimentel, are under the temporary protection of DACA.
For Pimentel, the essential question can be expressed in five words: Will Trump kick me out?
It is easy to feel sympathy for a young man like Pimentel. After all, he was only a baby when he entered this country; it would be absurd to hold him morally culpable for his parents’ decision to break the law by overstaying their visa. When some individuals, with hardness of heart, tell him to “go home,” what could that possibly mean? Home for Pimentel is here in the United States. The Portugal of his infancy is a foreign country; he doesn’t speak Portuguese, nor is he familiar with that nation’s culture or mores.
Moreover, I can appreciate his attempts to validate his parents’ decision to stay in the United States and contribute to our economy. As he wrote in the Sept. 26, 2016, issue of The Guardian, “Many suggest that I should leave, that I should be deported, that my parents should be deported. It is assumed that we do not pay taxes. It is assumed that we do not contribute. But my parents have built their lives here – they have invested in their own small business, created jobs and built up their own success by pursuing the American dream. The vast majority of undocumented immigrants have contributed to their communities.”
And yet … and yet … the following facts cannot be denied: Pimentel and his parents are not refugees; they did not flee a tyrannical government that threatened their lives and limbs. His parents chose to live here as illegal immigrants. Essentially, they chose to cut the line, to avoid the lengthy and cumbersome process that legal immigrants must take on their path to eventual United States citizenship.
What do undocumented immigrants have to say to those who have played by the rules?
And yet … and yet …what can any of us say to a young man like Pimentel? Must he remain in the twilight zone like a forsaken character in a Franz Kafka story – waiting, waiting for that knock on the door? By what possible moral standard can we hold him accountable for a decision his parents made when he was an infant? Surely, there must be a reservoir of wisdom and good will somewhere in Washington officialdom that can find a pathway to citizenship for the 750,000 so-called Dreamers.
Because Rodrigo Pimentel happens to be a dreamer in this uncertain time of Trump, there is no way of predicting in what new directions his dreams will take him.
JAMES B. ROSENBERG is rabbi emeritus at Temple Habonim in Barrington. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.