We’ve heard a lot about immigration policy ideas in the presidential candidates’ campaign speeches lately. Some of us support Hillary Clinton’s plan to establish a “path to full and equal citizenship” for undocumented immigrants; others side with Donald Trump on his “great, great wall” proposition. No matter where we stand, however, it can be all too easy to focus on ideology and lose sight of exactly whom we are dealing with: real people with real lives and real stories.
The young adults whose undocumented parents brought them here as children face a unique situation, commonly ignored and misunderstood, and they deserve the same opportunities as every other American child. Roberto G. Gonzales, Ph.D., sociologist and professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, discusses some of their stories in his new book, Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America. I heard Professor Gonzales speaking about his book recently, and the experiences he described struck me: Esperanza, who put herself through college and tracked down her textbooks in libraries every semester to save money, found herself confined to unskilled jobs upon graduating. Even when she attained legal permission to work, her thin resume prevented her from securing the career she wanted. Sergio, working in a factory to support his girlfriend and new baby, was deported to Mexico after police found explosives in the car of a coworker driving him home. He didn’t even speak Spanish. Esperanza, Sergio, and others “in limbo” grew up unaware of the severe constraints their status carried until their encounters with U.S. policy gave them a rude awakening. The fact that these individuals were undocumented was, Gonzales explained, a “master status” – one that overwhelmed each of their personal attributes, ultimately trapping them in the same cycle of poverty, secrecy, and distrust from which their parents had tried to escape.
The proposed DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act), a bill that has failed more than once in Congress, seeks to make temporary legal status and eventually permanent status accessible to undocumented youths who grew up in the United States. These young people – informally, the Dreamers – could qualify to receive residency, student loans, and work permits if they obtained a high school degree or GED, enrolled in college or enlisted in the military, and behaved morally. The first version of the DREAM Act, bill S.1291, was introduced in the Senate in 2001, but S.1291 and modifications over the following decade failed to pass. Finally, in 2012, the Obama administration implemented the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows a similar group of immigrants to apply for renewable two-year work permits and protection from deportation. While DACA beneficiaries have legal status, their limited prior work experience often makes them appear unqualified for the jobs they’ve strived to earn.
With presidential candidates focused on the undocumented immigrant population and how to reform current policies, we should recognize how their plans for reform would impact the young adults trying to further their education and find employment. These young people, my generation, could play an important role in our nation’s future. Citizenship would enable them to lead fulfilling lives: careers they enjoy and the education necessary to land those jobs, families they can provide with the means to thrive. When we bar the children brought here by undocumented immigrants from the resources they need to finish school and apply for jobs, we deny all of these individuals the right to access their potential. Children who grew up here, often unaware of their status, should be able to decide for themselves to what extent they pursue their education and in which field they work. The stigma and the legal limitations attached to the Dreamers’ “master status” take away these decisions automatically, with few exceptions, for an entire demographic. We cannot, as a nation, write off these more than two million Americans, believing they deserve their oppression and low socioeconomic rank due to their parents’ illicit arrival.
The impact of immigration policy extends beyond just determining who stays in this country and who is forced to leave. We claim to be the “Land of Opportunity,” or the “Great Melting Pot,” but when our legislation discriminates against any person, that individual cannot contribute his or her unique strengths and achievements to the so-called melting pot. As for the Land of Opportunity, if we ever hope to live up to that title, then everyone who strives to earn university admission or career qualification should reap the rewards of his or her effort.
Hannah Collins is a 2016 Intern with WGBH Forum Network.