Raymond and the Dream Riders in the Georgia state capital
If there is a kid who has been in America since he was a child and didn’t even know he was an undocumented immigrant until he came of age to drive a car, how would we treat him? Who are we? This is a question that we ask a lot as Americans, but when we talk about the children of immigrants we are really getting to the heart of that question. Are we going to be a beacon in the world—a place that stands by the rhetoric on one of our most iconic symbols? “Give me your tired, your poor/ your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”. Those words aren’t binding. That’s not a law. This isn’t a question about what we have to do but rather what we should do. I’ve got to be honest, it is rough talking to people who have never known another home but are being turned away from America. Geopolitics and personal interactions are a hard mix. Nonetheless, empathy is just one dimension to this issue. Existentially, this is a fight for the identity of both undocumented immigrants and American citizens.
In 2012 the Obama administration rolled out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and later enhanced it in 2014. The program allows those who came to America before 2010, while under the age of eighteen, to apply for a temporary renewable work permit and defer deportation. The program, however, does not afford a path to citizenship. Around 2 million youths are eligible for the program, however only a half a million have signed on to the program. That was curious to me and I talked with a friend, Raymond Partolan, about why that might be. A lot of people see immigration as solely a Latino issue but other minority groups face their own particular issues. Raymond works for Asian Americans Advancing Justice. He told me that when DACA was first announced, his parents didn’t really want him to apply for it because they thought it was a ploy to round up all the illegal immigrants and deport them. He also talked about the shame to even come out as an undocumented citizen. Some of the work he does helps to educate those in the undocumented Asian immigrant community about the programs out there for them. Another problem facing that community is language access. “Unlike Latinos, we don’t have that one unifying language that brings us all together. So, communicating is difficult, especially considering that about 75% of Asian Americans are born outside of the US and they come here as adults and almost half the Asian Americans who are here are what we call limited English proficient”. Raymond says that this makes it hard to even conduct door to door campaigns though they do offer phone service in several different languages.
Talking about DACA, “It’s an act of prosecutorial discretion meaning that, unless you are an enforcement priority for the United States government, you can’t be deported… you are issued… a work permit and in some states, including the state of Georgia, that is enough to get you a Georgia driver’s license. You’re also issued a social security number if you don’t already have one so you can work legally in the United States”. Raymond grew up in Georgia. His family moved here when he was a one year old. We served on the student senatorial body together at my university and in a lot of ways he’s more of a southern boy than I am. It’s easy to look at numbers on a paper, but I couldn’t imagine someone like Raymond being unable to get legal ID or legally work in this country. We would be poorer for not having him. And Raymond is not particularly unique—there are tons of other immigrants out there who are civically engaged and contributing to the American society. He invited me to meet some more of those kids.
On July 30th I went to the Georgia state capital to attend the Dream Riders Across America press conference. They’re a group of young people who are riding across the country, speaking to media and others about some of the issues immigrants face and telling their stories. The group was diverse, including Latin, Asian, and African American speakers. I saw a young man named Max, for the first time publicly, tell his story of being undocumented. Speaking to one of the members, it was striking to learn how young they all were. All of them were younger than me and a lot were teenagers. The kind of civic engagement that they are showing is something that is sorely missing from the American paradigm. After the press conference they all joined in chant: Show me what community looks like! This is what community looks like! Again, that question of who are we as Americans pops back into my head. Are these young adults not who we want to be? They are brave, engaged, and committed to the American project that values taking the argument to the people. If they are not Americans, then I’m not sure who Americans are supposed to be.
Obviously, immigration is a complicated issue and it isn’t going to be decided with just tugs of heart strings but eventually I think we have to start asking ourselves who we are in this fight. If we are going to be a country who deports kids who were raised here, who love this country and who don’t know any place else, then we are going to be the losers in this situation. And we aren’t just losing the benefits that those good people could bring us. We would be losing a battle for America’s identity. DACA is a good start but it is far from a permanent fix. Like I said before, it doesn’t contain a path to citizenship even if you have lived here your whole life. The renewal process is less than ideal and since the program is all based on an executive action it is always in peril of being overturned by another president. The election cycle is slowly shifting into full gear and a lot of us have questions for our potential presidents. I’d like them to think about who are we as Americans. What does our community look like?