Not so long ago we took our children and my husband’s parents on a family vacation to New York City. It took us all day but we finally found it, the brick in the corner of the building on Ellis Island etched with the name of my husband’s grandfather. It was hard not to be proud of the legacy of this man who arrived on our soil at the age of sixteen with no money and few prospects. His grandson, my husband, is the first in the family to graduate from college and, in many ways, is the very embodiment of the American Dream that drew his grandfather here all those years ago. As I listen to the hullabaloo around undocumented immigrants, I think about my husband’s grandfather and ponder do any one of us have more of a right to the American Dream than any other?
You might not have noticed it, but this past June President Obama quietly and significantly changed our country’s immigration policy. He issued an executive order commonly known as the “Consideration of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” or “Deferred Action” for short, allowing young undocumented immigrants the opportunity to receive work permits and protection from deportation for two years, with the possibility for renewal. Rather than hover on the perimeters, he gave them the right to become legal members of our society; legitimate participants, not watchers from the sidelines.
To be eligible, applicants must have lived in the U.S. since at least 2007, must have come here before they turned 16, be 30 or younger, be high school graduates or in college, or have served in the military, and they cannot have serious criminal records. If it sounds a lot like the Dream Act, it is. The big difference here is there is no formal path to residency. In many ways, this is just a buy. But it is a step, an important step, to finding a way to giving young people a chance to become legitimate contributors to our society.
People like Jose Antonio Vargas. You may have heard of him. He came to the United States at the age of twelve to live with his grandparents, permanent residents of our country. At sixteen, he learned he was here illegally. He hid his truth while he went to college, pursued a successful journalism career, and even won a Pulitzer Prize. Eventually, the pressure was too much and last year he “came out” as undocumented in a cover story in the New York Times. At 31, he has missed Obama’s Deferred Action deadline, but he is working to champion the rights of others like himself through his organization, Define American. In many ways, he has already achieved the American Dream and he isn’t even a citizen. While his dreams of legal documentation continue to be postponed, our country is better today because he is here.
To help others like Jose, California has launched it’s own mini-Dream Act. It offers undocumented high school students the chance to attend college by making them eligible for financial aid and scholarships. I think of my friend, Carmen (name changed to protect the innocent). She was born in Baja California, crossed the border holding her mother’s hand at the tender age of two, and has done everything she can to become a citizen of the only country she has ever known. An excellent high school student, she slaved away at her books while her mother cleaned houses. Her mother paid taxes, saved and bought a home, and together they worried about Carmen’s future.
Even though she was accepted at San Jose State University, Carmen couldn’t afford the tuition and worried that even if she tried to get aid, they would discover her doctored documents. She dreams of being a child psychologist. Instead of being in school these past few years, she has worked as a janitor at a pre-school – the closest she could get the children she so desperately wants to help. Now, she just might be one step closer to that dream, and I say, about darn time.
It is unclear what the future holds for these young people. What happens in two years when this first crop of deferred action applicants want to renew? If we have a different administration, will they be forced to go back into hiding? Or worse, be sent “back” to a country they’ve never known because now they are officially in the system?And what happens when Carmen graduates and she is saddled with the same debt many legal young Americans currently face? How will she repay it?
Sure there are unanswered questions, but they do not bely the underlying issue: being American is more than documentation. It’s about reaching for a dream and working as hard as one humanly can to achieve it. Rather than creating barriers to the dream, we should be creating opportunities to ensure as many members of our society can participate in meaningful and important ways. Because I believe Ellis Island is no longer just a place, it’s an idea whose time has come, again.