Monday, September 3, 2012

Hope Deferred

Despite the criticism of politicians who use the word “Hope” as a campaign slogan, “hope” is a good thing.   When Gov. Palin derided Pres. Obama and the state of the economy by saying, “how’s that hopey changey thing goin’ for ya,” it came across as not only mean-spirited but misguided.  Does she prefer no change and no hope?

That has been mostly the case for immigrants in the U.S. for the past 10 or more years.  No change; no hope.    I trace this, of course, to the events of 9.11.2001.  Anti-immigrant groups successfully seized on the temporary national crisis to identify “immigrants” with “terrorists” in the popular consciousness.  It is a consciousness that is still pervasive today, and even accepted as the norm in some circles.  Somehow, fighting terrorism became the same as restricting immigration.
On June 15, 2012, a glimmer of hope was announced by the administration.  It was much less than what we hoped for a few years ago when immigration reform was being considered, but also much more than we have come to expect since then.  The administration announced that it would no longer deport persons who came here as children, have graduated from high school, not committed serious crimes, been here continuously since 2007, etc.  I don't intend to give all the details here because those are easily accessible in other web sites.  If they qualify, then can get temporary permission to be here (2 years at a time), and temporary work authorization.  The hope is that they can stay until Congress finally finds a way to pass the Dream Act, or some similar reform legislation. 

Of course, the policy initiative is frought with questions and uncertainty, and lawyers are understandably cautious about approaching it and advising clients to apply for this "benefit."  What if the information they give will just be used later to deport them?  What if the administration changes and the policy is revoked?  What about their parents? 

But no uncertainty exists with the Dreamers (as they are called, because they would be the ones that would also benefit from the Dream Act if it ever passes).  They have already lived their lives here with the daily uncertainty that without warning, either they or their parents might be scooped up, put in the removal system, and sent out of their homes here, to a country they barely know, possibly never to return.  And with good reason.  After all, some 40,000 plus parents of U.S. citizens were deported in just a six month span last year.

This past weekend, I had the unexpected pleasure of volunteering at two pro bono clinics assisting Dreamers with their DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) applications.  I was impressed with the beautiful people I saw.  I poured over their papers that proved they had been here during the requisite time:  school transcripts, immunization records, honor roll certificates, perfect attendance certificates, certificates from their churches regarding first communions, service as altar boys, etc. 

Here was the typical profile of what I saw.  They were from 15-22 years old.  They had been brought to the U.S. when they were about age 5-10 and enrolled in school, not knowing English.  They graduated from High School as honor students.  Some were already in college.  Their English was flawless.  Many had brought their parents with them, even though the parents were not eligible for any relief.  The parents still had no legal opportunities to "get papers." 

The parents were interesting.  Still watching over the children they had brought to the U.S.,   making sure they took advantage of this opportunity, whatever it turned out to be.  They had the weathered look of honest, hard working people who knew had to do things for long hours with their hands.  Their English was broken.  They were, after all, adults when they came to the U.S.  Every now and then, their children would turn to them and translate into Spanish what I had just said.  The parents would nod and smile at me. 

The kids themselves, some now adults, were intelligent, bright eyed, determined people.  They looked me in the eye and told me they really wanted to go to college and make something of their lives.  I realized that for most of their lives, they have had to serve an unusual role in their families -- they've had to help their parents transition into new lives while growing up themselves.  They seemed mature beyond their years.  They've had to show a lot more courage in their lives at those ages than I think I ever considered.

And they have had to hope.  I saw that in the parents' eyes too.  Some 15 years ago, they crossed the desert, or waded across the river, or came legally and then just stayed without papers after their authorization expired.  They brought children with them with the singular hope that these children would have better lives than their parents had known.  The parents have sacrificed everything to give their kids this hope, and I could tell the kids respected their parents for it.  In the parents' eyes, you could see that the day they had imagined some 15 years ago was just beginning to dawn.

I've talked with these kinds of kids before, while they were in school.  They are universally told that if they stay in school, work hard, and stay out of trouble, our government would eventually let them stay.  They recite this as a kind of credo.  That had, after all, been the pattern many times in the past.  Knowing the law now, however, I knew that was only a hope.  There was nothing in the law that gave them a basis for this kind of hope.  It was a faith they held based on the past, the dreams of their parents, and an idea about the U.S. and its essential goodness that has somehow escaped the American people in the past decade.

But now the door was opening, just a crack, and the excitement was palpable.  Maybe they were actually going to get ID's, work cards, insurance, sign leases, open bank accounts, pay tuition.  Maybe they would be able to walk the streets without fear of deportation to a country they've never really known. 

Of course, I'm stereotyping here based on the people I met.  I'm sure there are some Dreamers who dropped out, joined gangs, etc.  But that's not what I saw in these young adults.  Courage is the word that comes to mind.  Despite the warnings of us well-meaning, cautious lawyers, these Dreamers are going to go for it.  They've waited too long not to.