Two weeks ago, Elias Rosenfeld’s life took an unexpected turn for the better. Rosenfeld, a Venezuelan-born Jewish Brandeis University student, is among some 700,000 undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children who will benefit from the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that, at least for now, halted President Donald Trump’s ability to deport them.
In its June 18 ruling, the court found that in 2017, the Department of Homeland Security was “arbitrary and capricious” when it rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Known as DACA, the executive order signed by former President Barack Obama in 2012 granted temporary protection for young immigrants who were then able to obtain driver’s licenses, work legally and apply for college loans.
But the decision addressed the administration’s procedural failings and within a day, the president tweeted his intention to once again revoke DACA, this time in a way that will pass legal standards.
“It’s a big sense of relief,” Rosenfeld said in a phone conversation about the Supreme Court decision. “But at the same time, we saw the aggressive response by Trump and the administration, signaling the victory is short term,” he said.
“We have to ensure that Congress passes permanent protection.”
In Massachusetts, 19,000 people were eligible for DACA status, and another 4,000 could qualify in the future, according to the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition.
Rosenfeld’s story tugs at the heart. He immigrated legally to the U.S. with his family when he was six, settling in South Florida where his mother worked as a media executive. Tragically, six years later, his mother died of cancer. In high school, when Rosenfeld applied for his driver’s permit, he learned that as a result of his mother’s death, he no longer had legal status, upturning his life and that of his older sister.
From that moment, Rosenfeld, now 22, turned his despair and fear into action. He’s become a tireless, well-informed, outspoken activist, working with elected political leaders, immigrant rights groups and Jewish advocacy groups to push for permanent protection for DACA recipients, known as Dreamers, and other undocumented immigrants.
Rosenfeld is heartened by the widespread bipartisan support for the Dreamers among a large majority of Americans. A new poll by Politico revealed that more than 75 percent of registered voters say Dreamers should be allowed to stay in the United States.
Rosenfeld is one of 11 students whose stories were included in an amicus brief filed by 165 colleges, including Brandeis, that urged the Court to overturn the action of the Trump administration.
Advocating for Rosenfeld and other undocumented students has been a high priority for Brandeis, according to Risa Levine, who serves as vice president of the Brandeis Alumni Association.
The New York-based attorney first met Rosenfeld when she spoke at the college several years ago. Since then, the two have become close, bonding over their passion for political activism, she said.
With the school’s historic origins in the Jewish community and its commitment to social justice, the issue of immigration resonates with the Brandeis community, she said.
She’s struck by Rosenfeld’s dedication, even at the risk of putting the needs of others before his own, she acknowledged.
“His moral center is so strong,” she observed, describing Rosenfeld as sweet and soft-spoken.
Rosenfeld has spoken at dozens of synagogues and other events for Jewish organizations here and across the country, including for the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, the New England Anti-Defamation League, and Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Justice.
Immigration is deeply rooted in the Jewish experience, according to Cindy Rowe, executive director of JALSA. The teaching to welcome the stranger appears in the Torah 36 times, she noted, making it a natural issue for the Boston-based social justice organization.
She admires Rosenfeld’s courage in sharing his story publicly. “People were spellbound,” when he spoke at their annual meeting a few years ago. His life in this country was so at risk, she said. “Elias made that real for a room of 300 people,” she said. She’s seen him have that same impact at legislative hearings.
JALSA, the New England ADL and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston are working with immigrant rights groups to pass two bills in the state legislature: the Safe Communities Act; and the Work and Family Mobility Act, which would allow eligible undocumented immigrants to obtain a state driver’s license.
In the months ahead, Rosenfeld will focus on the driver’s license legislation, as well as helping organizations raise funds to support DACA recipients, who must pay a $495 fee to renew their status. He’s also helping others who are filing for DACA status for the first time and plans to work on voter turnout and other immigrant issues for the upcoming elections.
In his personal life, Rosenfeld plans to apply to law school where he’d like to study family law.
While he is more secure today, he is cautious about the future, he admitted.
“I don’t look too far ahead, more than a year.”