DREAMing out loud.

The concept (vaguely-developed as it is) for this blog is sort of a book club with myself; basically, I want to get down my thoughts on what I read. Where better to start than the article that’s made one of the biggest blogospheric splashes of the year?

Undocumented immigration: the story

Today, I finally got around to reading Jose Antonio Vargas’ celebrated New York Times Magazine article outing himself as an undocumented immigrant. It’s a well-written and moving story, and one that certainly resonates with the article’s likely readership (upwardly-mobile middle- and upper-class Americans who are at least aspirationally civic-minded). You should read it for yourself, but what I took away from it is that the undocumented immigrant problem has finally been personalized for “mainstream” or “middle” America. Vargas’ story, which takes root in suburban and striving Mountain View, California, is quickly recognizable, and likely mirrors your own life in key ways. While I was reading, I found it easy to identify with Vargas as an achiever in high school with dreams of something bigger afterwards (the critical distinction here is that the Pulitzer Prize-winning Vargas was, in his youth, obviously far more self-aware, confident, and better at identifying his goals and how to achieve them than I ever was or will be). Vargas’ professional success in journalism (he was a staff reporter for the Washington Post and profiled Mark Zuckerberg for The New Yorker in 2010)  is an inspiring personification of the American dream of meritocracy: the system rewarded Vargas’ good work, and his nationality had nothing to do with it. He even self-calls on this point:

Over the past 14 years, I’ve graduated from high school and college and built a career as a journalist, interviewing some of the most famous people in the country. On the surface, I’ve created a good life. I’ve lived the American dream.

At the same time, what makes Vargas’ story so compelling is his description of the anxiety he constantly faced and battled ever since he first learned of his illegal status at the age of 16. It shows the specifics of what it’s like to be an undocumented immigrant: how can you work? How can you get a chance to work? It’s startling and disturbing to see how much deceit is required – in making excuses about not traveling internationally, in lying on paperwork – and what a toll it takes on people and their relationships.

Vargas writes that he was inspired by reading about the DREAM Act, an immigration bill first introduced in 2001 that makes a path to legal status for certain immigrant youth who have grown up and been educated in the U.S. Vargas seems like the perfect spokesperson for the DREAM Act: a high-achieving, productive member of society whose undocumented status was not (originally) his own doing. Of course, he’s not the only one who would benefit from the DREAM Act. According to dreamact.info, 65,000 undocumented students graduate high school in the U.S. each year – young people who are educated and steeped in American culture, yet not legally American.

American faces

Today on Tumblr I came across the blog of an amazing photography project called Detained Dreams, which its creator, Karrisa Olsen, describes thus:

My project is a chance for the unapologetic and unafraid to share their stories that have been so carefully locked away in secrecy for most of their life. It will look beyond the struggles of their lack of equal rights and brush light upon who they are as people.

The first photograph is simply titled: “Pamela. Bolivia. 8 months old.”

Right now, this is the only photograph up on the blog, but it makes the project look very promising. Pamela looks like someone I might know; she looks American in her dress and attitude; she doesn’t look “illegal.” And she’s pictured sitting alone in what looks like it might be a waiting room – a solitary limbo that mirrors her undocumented status. Compositionally, the photo is jarring; it’s all sectioned-off edges and colorblock, and the subject is shrunk in the corner, her attention far off. Yet the photo is also suffused with light and hints at optimism (the blank space above her head). Nevertheless, the very act of appearing in this photograph is fraught with danger: Pamela has assumed the risk of deportation to a country that she left when she was an infant, where she likely has no friends or even family, whose language she might not even speak. As Vargas pointed out, even under the Obama Administration, 800,000 people have been deported in the last two years.

The state of the problem

Matt Yglesias has drawn out some of the most interesting points about Vargas’ article and DREAMers: most importantly, to me, is the moral ambivalence that surrounds this problem. Yglesias points out that throughout Vargas’ story, there were people who learned of his illegal status but didn’t treat him as illegal – no one reported him or called the cops. Instead, they tried to help him to the extent that they could (Vargas calls these people his own “Underground Railroad”). This response makes sense intuitively: Vargas was not doing anything that society generally conceives of  as criminal – he was merely trying to get a drivers license, or a job for which he was qualified: things which are generally approved of by society. And the punishment (deportation) is something that most people would agree is disproportionate to the wrong (permitting his mother and grandparents to facilitate his illegal immigration at the age of twelve). Yglesias sums it up this way:

Which is all just to say that the treatment of undocumented workers in this country is one of those things where we’re only kinda sorta willing to enforce the law. Faced with a known quantity — a friend, a colleague — nobody really wants to see a good person deported.

– but he also points out that “Washington basically doesn’t want this on the agenda.”

It certainly seems true that Washington doesn’t want to deal with comprehensive immigration reform, but the DREAM Act in isolation might stand a better chance. Last month, when Harry Reid re-introduced the DREAM Act and President Obama gave his El Paso speech on immigration reform, Ezra Klein judged that passing the DREAM Act alone was plausible, if the Obama Administration made it a priority. Last week, Senate Democrats introduced legislation for comprehensive immigration reform (S. 1258), which includes the DREAM Act. One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Sen. Durbin, is quoted as calling the DREAM Act a “catalyst” to get comprehensive immigration reform passed, but we’ll see where the chips fall on that.

Coming on the heels of this weekend’s historic victory for gay rights, commentators are already looking for the implications for gay immigrants. As Autostraddle put it, “Gay-Inclusive Immigration Reform Could Potentially Be a Thing.” In addition to the DREAM Act, last week’s immigration bill also includes the Uniting American Families Act, which would end the current, discriminatory law prohibiting Americans from sponsoring their same-sex, foreign-born partners for residency.

I can’t comment on the rest of the immigration bill, but these sound like two parts of it that should not be sacrificed in the name of “bipartisan compromise.” We’ll have to see if Washington and the filibuster-happy Senate in particular decide to pick this up and run with it. It’s never been particularly clear to me what makes politicians do what they do. But at least there are communicators like Vargas and Olsen who are telling the story of the problem.

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