The Lamp Beside the Golden Door
One of the biggest moments in a parent’s life is seeing his or her child off to school. It first happens at age five or six, when the child climbs onto that bus in September, all dressed up and excited in new school clothes, Mom or Dad wiping away a tear and waving goodbye. Here is my son, Jake, on his first day of kindergarten back in 1987:
Some kids make other important choices, such as going into the military. Only a few weeks ago I was dropping a friend off at the airport and I witnessed two parents saying goodbye to their son, dressed bravely in his military fatigues but looking so young and scared. As his mother hugged her son for the third time and wept, his father looked around uncomfortably and caught my eye. We held that look for a moment in silent understanding that this marked the moment when his son had grown up.
All around us today we have children raised in American cities and towns who are eager to do likewise – to take their talents and aspirations and charge into their futures with the same level of hope and excited anticipation as their friends – but they cannot. Their parents, often out of desperation to find a better life for their children, made choices long ago that have now left their kids without documents – unable to get a driver’s license, work, or in many instances attend school. (See for example the recent bill passed by the Georgia senate that, if enacted, would join Alabama and South Carolina in prohibiting undocumented students from attending public colleges.) Even if colleges will admit undocumented students, these students face serious financial obstacles because they are ineligible for federal and most state-based financial aid, including grants, work study jobs, or loans. According to E4FC (Educators for Fair Consideration), only thirteen states allow qualifying students to pay in-state tuition and most private colleges treat them as international students, requiring them to compete with students world-wide for only a few financial aid slots to cover the four-year $80,000 – $200,000 price tag.
E4FC reports that there are millions of children impacted, including 65,000 new high school graduates each year who have attended American schools for at least five years. It should be pointed out that for the most part their parents are working in skilled or low-skilled jobs in our country for employers who withhold taxes from their paychecks just as they do from their other workers – taxes which help to pay for the schools that all of their children attend (which is the reason that some states, like Texas, allow for in-state tuition.) There are those among us, of course, who blame parents for bringing their children into this situation in the first place. Perhaps they don’t fully comprehend the fear and anxiety that has led those parents to seek a better life for their kids. Or the despair that made one young mother in Tucson, an employee at Little America working with fake documents, kill herself and her eleven-year old daughter last month after being caught and targeted for deportation. According to the report, she couldn’t imagine bringing her child back to the life of domestic violence and crushing poverty from which she had escaped.
Even for those lucky enough to graduate from college, there are no legal jobs at the end of the rainbow. I’ve really got to hand it to people like Cesar Vargas, who entered the U.S. at age five and worked his way all the way through law school, hoping against hope that he’d be able to work in the legal profession upon graduation. For now, though, he will have to join the ranks of talented, well educated young professionals who not only cannot find jobs in their fields, they cannot lawfully do ANY work. While there are some who will look at this situation and say, “So what? There aren’t enough jobs to go around for American graduates,” does it make any sense to force joblessness upon productive and talented people who might well turn out to become job creators in future?
I see the families who live under these conditions. They often include multiple adults struggling together in one household, residing with the few who are either lucky enough to have lawful status or undetected false documents and who support all the others. Recently a grandmother (who has U.S citizenship) told me that she and her granddaughter (who also has U.S. citizenship) heard an unexpected knock on the door and both hid together under a table in panic because the girl’s well educated and unemployed mother is undocumented. Since the girl’s mother was out buying groceries, the girl asked, “Grandma, why are we hiding?” As they recounted this story, which in one sense was funny, the twelve-year-old girl could not stop crying. She said all she thinks about is someone coming to take away her mother (which recently happened to one of her friends.) Meanwhile, Grandpa, who got his green card through sponsorship by an employer after his daughter and son were too old to benefit, supports everyone. He feels guilty because he brought them into this situation. And they all worry about the adult son, who with nothing to do hangs around with the wrong crowd.
Probably more than any of our other complex immigration problems, this one has an easy and excellent legislative solution, and it comes in the form of the DREAM Act. This is bi-partisan legislation (first introduced more than ten years ago) that would provide a path to U.S. citizenship for qualifying youth (those high school or GED graduates who entered the U.S. before age sixteen, are of good moral character, have lived in the U.S. for at least five years when the bill is passed, and are between the ages of 12 and 35 at the time of application.) Within a six year period after applying, these individuals must complete either two years of college education or military service. The latest version of the Dream Act was passed by the House over a year ago, but failed in the Senate after it was added to a defense-spending bill.
Impatient with the situation, some Silicon Valley executives have taken the matter into their own hands and are working with E4FC not only to provide scholarships to help kids through school, but are exploring the idea of providing them unpaid internships (since paid internships would violate the I-9 regulations). They argue that the U.S. is losing its competitive edge in the fields of science and technology and that we really shouldn’t be wasting this talent. One undocumented engineering graduate reported that he had to turn down five jobs in the last month because there is so much demand for high-tech workers.
Dream Act kids, as they are called, are taking the matter into their own hands as well. Recently they have coalesced and come out of hiding in large numbers, holding rallies around the country and gaining momentum. Hopeful that maybe the DREAM Act will finally get passed, they are telling their powerful stories to American voters – stories such as Leonardo’s (who, abandoned by his mother, left Mexico at age twelve when his grandmother became too ill to care from him, shuffled between homelessness and distant relatives in the U.S., and is now a Stanford student) or Daniela Palaez, the North Miami valedictorian who recently won a two year reprieve from deportation to Columbia and has become something of a poster child for the cause.
Our book, Green Card Stories, tells similar stories of individuals who were lucky enough to have figured out a rare (and now mostly defunct) path to permanent residence. These include Randy Sealey (who went from being an undocumented kid in Brooklyn to an orthopedic surgeon in Connecticut),
The point of these stories is that given the opportunity, these undocumented children can pursue their dreams and become functioning, productive members of American society. Some, as described in these stories, will excel magnificently. And as with children everywhere, not all will succeed. But aren’t they really our children – raised together in the same system? Many of the above stories involve Americans who have surely thought so. They have generously stepped in and extended these kids a helping hand - putting them through school, providing mentorship, and even taking them into their own homes. They recognize that these kids are entitled to at least give life a shot, the same as our own kids get. As a community and a nation, can we even imagine the alternative? Who wants to live in a country where more and more talented graduates are required to languish in permanent, jobless, hopeless obscurity? Please consider doing whatever you can to get the Dream Act passed this time around so that we don’t have to.