For 25 years, Roy Naim, an undocumented immigrant, led a secretive life. Having no identification papers, he could not drive, rent an apartment or be legally employed. Worst of all, he constantly feared being deported from his home and family. All he did was try to lie low, and somehow get by.
Naim is still undocumented. But in the past year he has been doing anything but lying low. Since June 2012, the young man, who spent his entire adult life in the shadow of society, has appeared on the cover of Time magazine, was featured in a documentary and was interviewed by the New York Daily News. He is constantly on Twitter and Facebook, promoting a new immigration bill that would secure his future as an American.
Naim, 29, an Israeli-born Orthodox Jew, has become the Jewish face of activism for immigration reform.
In many ways he’s an unusual figure among immigrant activists. 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.
Clear data on the number of Jewish illegal immigrants in the United States is not available because most are doing what Naim did for 25 years: living in the shadows of society.
Naim’s “illegal” life began in 1988, when he was 4 years old. His family entered the United States on tourist visas and decided to stay. Growing up in Brooklyn, Naim studied in the Jewish schools that would accept him even though he was undocumented.
He could not visit his relatives back in Israel (“I’ve a hundred cousins I don’t even know,” he said). A class trip to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls was problematic. And one time, when he injured his foot playing soccer in summer camp, the hospital did not want to treat him because he lacked a Social Security number and didn’t qualify for health care benefits or have basic medical insurance.