This article was cross-posted from the Huffington Post.
Jose Antonio Vargas' story is remarkable. He disclosed in a New York Times Magazine essay that he is an undocumented immigrant from the Philippines who learned of his true status at the age of 16 when he applied for a driver's permit. In spite of that challenge, he became an award-winning journalist, having worked for the Washington Post and the Huffington Post, written for an array of other top-flight media outlets, and interviewed a number of high-profile newsmakers.
Without doubt, Jose is a special talent with a special story; he's using that profile to advocate on behalf of other undocumented young men and women who have attended high school in the United States and could benefit from the enactment of the DREAM Act. If passed, the Act would grant lawful status to these undocumented young adults if they complete at least two years of college or military service and fulfill other conditions. Democratic leaders tried to get the DREAM Act passed in the lame duck session of Congress in December, and although the legislation passed in the House, Harry Reid fell five votes short in a Senate cloture vote.
Turns out that I'm helping to represent another DREAMer (as many such young adults are commonly referred to) who is currently age 16 and facing deportation. Ernesto (a pseudonym) may not have the remarkable accomplishments that Jose has to his credit, but I sense that given the opportunity, Ernesto also can contribute importantly to our society. Like many children born in Mexico, his parents brought Ernesto across the border surreptitiously several years back. Mexico's economy shed jobs as a result of NAFTA and the country's inability to compete in agriculture and manufacturing with world trade compact nations like China. So Ernesto's parents and many others crossed the border in search of work to feed their families.
Fast forward to Ernesto's first year in high school and a grading period where he got terrific grades. On a stroll after dinner, the family went into a toy store where Ernesto spotted a toy gun he liked that shot harmless plastic pellets. His father bought him the toy as a reward for his grades, but everything spiraled downhill from there. Ernesto proudly took the toy gun to school to show his friends, and a teacher spotted it. The school's zero tolerance policy included toy guns, so Ernesto got reported to the local police. The local police fingerprinted Ernesto and ran a standard check with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and they discovered that Ernesto was undocumented. As Ernesto faces the prospects of being deported to Mexico, his teachers and school officials — filled with regret for the role they unintentionally played in this tragedy — are lobbying ICE officials and political leaders to halt Ernesto's deportation. They describe him as a "wonderful student," a "critical thinker and debater," who is "deeply insightful and compassionate." The sense that I get from Jose's story is that had he been in Ernesto's shoes in high school, Jose's teachers would have done the same for him. The sense that I have from getting to know Ernesto, his family, and his teachers, is that Ernesto has talent, too.
Much of the positive media coverage on the DREAM Act has focused on DREAMers who have overcome struggle to do well in high school and college, aspiring to be doctors, engineers, or to enter other professions. For those of us who support the DREAM Act, it's hard to resist the impulse to highlight the remarkable success stories of the young adults we have encountered. In recounting Ernesto's story, you can see that the easy thing to do is focus on what a wonderful kid he is, especially in the eyes of his teachers. Doing so is probably the politically savvy thing to do as well.
However, I'm reminded by Ernesto's very same teachers that not all of their DREAMers are straight-A students, and that these others students shouldn't be ignored. First, like any cohort of students, some will do well academically, and some won't. That doesn't mean that we need to be ashamed of the C students. It means that many of those students are not destined to be Ph.D candidates at Berkeley. Second, and of greater concern, teachers tell me that many of their undocumented students — for some beginning in middle school — are aware of their status and see little reason to apply themselves academically. They see college as unreachable because they are ineligible for many scholarships and loans, plus without authorization, they don't see how they will be able to find work with or without college. For that group, we need to re-instill a sense of hope and purpose for education. I'm reminded of the important words of the Supreme Court in its 1982 case, Plyler v. Doe, that reminded us why it's important not to foreclose public education to undocumented students:
[M]any of the undocumented children disabled by this classification will remain in this country indefinitely, and . . . some will become lawful residents or citizens of the United States. It is difficult to understand precisely what the State hopes to achieve by promoting the creation and perpetuation of a subclass of illiterates within our boundaries, surely adding to the problems and costs of unemployment, welfare, and crime. It is thus clear that whatever savings might be achieved by denying these children an education, they are wholly insubstantial in light of the costs involved to these children, the State, and the Nation.
For every Jose Antonio Vargas or Ernesto, we are very likely to encounter DREAMers who are not near the top of their class, but they are here at any rate because their parents are dreamers as well. Their parents' dreams may appear simple and clichéd, but they are true nonetheless: to make an honest living for an honest day's work, to put food on the table, to be part of a safe community, to instill strong family values, and to send their children to school out of hope for a better tomorrow. Like Jose and Ernesto, they too are remarkable for getting their families here out of sheer determination to lead a productive life.
Bill Ong Hing is a professor of law at the University of San Francisco.