Aviel Nisimi has stood in line for more than 20 years.
Not literally, but that’s how the Israeli immigrant describes the process of applying for United States citizenship with his family.
“As we’re in line throughout the process, we have our lawyer, then we switch the lawyer, then the case falls through, at one point the taxes went up and we didn’t realize so we made that mistake and had to start the application over,” he said.
Nisimi is one of hundreds of thousands of immigrants who can continue to study and work legally in the U.S. due to the Supreme Court’s June 18 ruling blocking the Trump administration’s attempt to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
The Obama-era program protects immigrants who came to the United States as children, known as “Dreamers,” from deportation.
Nisimi arrived in the U.S. from Netanya, Israel, in 1991 with his parents and three siblings on a tourist visa. The family planned to stay in the country and apply for citizenship.
“Back then, it was easy,” Nisimi said. “Then, after 9/11, it became really difficult.”
Despite the lengthy process, Nisimi had a normal childhood. His family lived in Overbrook Park before moving to Northern Liberties and joining Congregation Mikveh Israel in Old City. He attended Torah Academy of Greater Philadelphia, Robert E. Lamberton Elementary School and Lower Merion High School.
It wasn’t until he turned 16 and tried to apply for a driver’s license that he realized the full implications of his immigration status.
“I go [to the Department of Motor Vehicles] with all my documentation, and they’re like, ‘No, you need a Social Security number,’” he recounted.
He received an identification number when he entered the country, but it was not valid for employment or for government identification.
“That was when it really hit, ‘You won’t be able to drive like the rest of your class,’” he said. “When DACA came out and I got a license, that was a life-changer.”
Shaloo Jose, director of the Asylee Outreach Program at HIAS Pennsylvania and Nisimi’s immigration case manager, recalled how meaningful that opportunity was for him.
“He was super excited, and he just ran to get his state ID,” she said.
Nisimi attended the Talmudical Institute of Upstate New York and now works as a kosher food supervisor. His siblings have become U.S. citizens through marriage, and his parents have obtained citizenship through their petitions. His mother has filed a petition for his citizenship, but it is pending and does not confer legal status, according to Jose.
As a result, he is the only member of his immediate family who is not a citizen. When his parents and siblings go to Israel to visit family, he is forced to stay behind. He has not seen his grandmother since he was 7.
“My case is different from a typical Dreamer. For me, the whole idea of DACA was the idea to be able to go back to Israel, to go and visit family there,” he said. “I love America, I like it here, my family’s here, but Israel is home. I don’t think that everybody has this type of challenge because everyone wants to stay here.”
His family began working on their cases with HIAS PA in 2001. He said they have been extremely supportive.
“Shaloo was heaven-sent. When I want to give up and just leave, she’s like, ‘Stay and pray.’ And she is right,” he said.
Many HIAS PA staff were prepared for the Supreme Court to uphold the Trump administration’s decision to end DACA.
“A lot of us, a lot of advocates at HIAS, were not anticipating a favorable decision simply based on the number of conservative judges sitting in the Supreme Court,” Latino Outreach and Immigration Services Coordinator Gerardo Castillo-Jimenez said.
Jose said the uncertainty leading up to the decision was difficult for her clients.
“It is stressful because you don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s not easy on [Nisimi]. I would just say, you know, ‘Keep faith, we are all here,’” she said.
Nisimi followed her advice and stayed positive while waiting for the Supreme Court’s decision.
“It was two things. If [the decision] is good, OK great, we wait some more. If it’s bad, also great, then I’m going to Israel,” he said.
The ruling allows him to continue to work and reside in the country legally while applying for citizenship, which would give him the chance to finally return to Israel.
Castillo-Jimenez said the ruling was a huge win for Dreamers like Nisimi, but that more policies were needed to fully protect immigrant communities.
“As good and great as DACA is, it’s still not a permanent safeguard for Dreamers and for immigrants who don’t qualify for DACA but face many of the same problems,” he said.
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