This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 5, 2011 - Dina Siegel Vann, director of the Latino and Latin American Institute with the American Jewish Committee, comes to St. Louis on Tuesday and Wednesday to meet with local Jewish and Latino leaders and talk about issues that tie the two as well as the new Latino-Jewish coalition in Congress.
Siegel Vann, a native of Mexico, immigrated to the United States in 1996. She organized the first Latino-Jewish Leadership Summit in 2001. Before coming to town, she took a little time with the St. Louis Beacon to talk about the work she's done and what's still needed.
You've spent much of your career building bridges between the Latino and Jewish communities. What are the issues that first drew you to building coalitions among them?
Siegel Vann: The need for immigration reform is definitely at the top of our common priorities but there are other topics of shared interest, among them the fight against bigotry deriving from the immigration debate which has led to an increase in hate crimes and speech, access to quality education to help the U.S. face challenges in an increased globalized economy and foreign policy priorities in the Middle East and Latin America
Have those issues changed over time, and if so, how?
Siegel Vann: I have been involved in Latino-Jewish relations for the last 12 years, and there have been substantive changes. There is much more awareness about shared historical, ethical and pragmatic considerations for a Latino-Jewish alliance and we are in the process of transcending traditional issues such as immigration to explore unchartered territory such as foreign policy.
Through your own personal experience and your work, what have you found that the two communities share, and how do they differ?
Siegel Vann: We have strong historical connections dating back to Spain and Columbus' arrival in the Americas, shared stories of discrimination and persecution, exile and diaspora. We are very much concerned with family, community and faith. Our numbers differ dramatically but we have attempted to share with our Latino partners that numbers count or do not count depending on your political leverage. That is why one of AJC's top programs is sharing with Latino organizations and leaders our own history of political empowerment. We want to be issue-relevant but issue transcendent as well, meaning that we need to insist that a Latino-Jewish alliance has to be broad and long-term in scope.
While here, you'll be meeting with local leaders from both the Jewish and Latino communities. What issues do you expect to focus on?
Siegel Vann: Immigration as the civil rights issue of our times and it transcends any specific group to go to the heart of what this society is and will be all about in the years to come. We want to make sure that this is a message that is understood loud and clear. Also we would like to bring to the fore that for the Jewish community, support for the existence of israel in peace and security is of prime importance and we would like increased involvement from our Latino partners. We also would like to convey that Latin America, our neighborhood, has to become a priority for the U.S. before our involvement in the region is marginalized by the increased presence of foreign actors such as Iran and China.
Issues around immigration have been one area of focus for you. What would you like to see happen at a policy level with immigration, and what are the chances of making that happen?
Siegel Vann: Unfortunately, in a hyper-politicized environment, immigration is considered a third rail and thus we don't expect that the topic will be under serious discussion by Congress until after the presidential elections. Having said that, perhaps limited legislation such as the Dream Act has a chance of passing. We have to set the stage though and get ready for when the debate is brought to the fore and make sure that this time we are successful in advancing significant changes in our broken immigration system. We're also combatting state laws such as Arizona's and copycat laws criminalizing immigrants.