Welcoming migrants and undocumented students in America

IHaveADreamWe all have dreams. Usually they involve some kind of career or opportunity that enables one to survive, and indeed, thrive in this world. When my father was a child in New England in the 1920s and 30s, his memories–and often his parents’ house–were filled and enriched by friends and relatives passing through from (what was then part of) the British nation across the northern border, temporarily in the US for seasonal work opportunities. No documentation was needed for such “migrants” to work legally at that time. Indeed, one of his grandfathers had tried working for a time in New Haven at the end of the 19th century  before fleeing north again to escape the devastating symptoms of mosquito-induced malaria in Connecticut. There may have been no work restrictions in America, but neither did most homes have window screens.

Today, in contrast, those who happen to have been born in other nations and who seek opportunities to do serious work, as migrants, are treated as less than human–at least here in the USA. I often think back to an encounter I had years ago on a train platform, when a stranger mistakenly took me for someone from (I’m guessing here) some nation in Europe, and began to shout at me to “go home; you’re stealing our children’s food!”  Then and now, this memory troubles me, since she was so blind to the basic obvious fact that neither of us looked quite like a Native American; clearly both of us had ancestors who had once sought exit from another nation to try new hopes in a new world, apparently a kinder world that saw fit to allow us the eventual “right” to dwell and even self-identify as “citizens.”

Many teenagers today feel as I did on that train station–but with a greater fear, since in fact they entered the country as young children, grow up fully “American” and then learn that somehow their family’s paperwork lacks what they need for the citizenship that would allow them to contribute and express their greatest gifts to the benefit of their “home” country here in the USA. These issues came home to me recently as I listened to a panel of teenagers  reflecting on their experience growing up as “undocumented” residents, children of refugees and immigrants for whom official “working papers” seem like an impossible dream. Many of them fled horrendous violence or crippling civic and economic circumstances, yet live in poor communities hampered by the unspoken stigma of the “informal” economy where folks are paid little and fear to complain. Living in the liminal space between America’s wealth, privilege, and fear because they don’t have a green card or social security number to apply to college or the jobs they dream of, such kids need support and informed advisors to help them overcome the “documentation” challenges. Identifying fully as Americans, they are at risk of depression, lost dreams, even suicide when in fact they merit the best that America has always sought to offer those who find their home within these borders and seek to bring their full potential to the nation they call home. One opportunity such teens do have: free education through high school. And with a high school degree they–and those who listen to and advise them–can make college possible–and work toward hope for full citizenship someday. It’s tough to be an ordinary working class teenager who wants to go to college, when you are the first in your family; for teens without a social security number and the citizenship they need to work, the challenges can seem impossible.

Resources are available — both for these teens and for the adults (teachers, counselors, family members and community friends) who want to support them on the journey to a college education and–perhaps someday–full citizenship. For those of us who find this all new and unfamiliar, a good place to begin is with Harvard Graduate School of Education professor, Roberto Gonzalez‘s, new book, Lives in Limbo: Undocumented and Coming of Age in America True stories by the students themselves also can inform; one place to start is by reading about Act on a Dream, one student-led group for and by “undocumented” undergraduates, including many of their personal  stories.

Such students are not “illegal” (the correct identification is “undocumented”), and it is not illegal to help them!!  Many universities, private and public, for example, have special scholarship funds available to students who aren’t eligible for federal funding. For example, Brown University ensures needs-based funding to any student it accepts – and undocumented students are simply treated like international students. A number of graduate schools also welcome applicants with DACA status (defined below); Loyola Medical School  was the first to accept such students and were explicit about the Jesuit values underlying that policy.

Langston Hughes’s poem, “Dream Deferred” was one I had to memorize in high school, and one that has profoundly shaped my life.  We are all strangers in this world. Let’s not hinder the life-inspiring dreams of those still in their teens who offer the best of America’s tomorrow.

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