"You make yourself out of what you do here. It doesn't matter where you came from, or what your background is. You work for what you have. If you work hard, you can achieve anything," she said. "And I'm going to work as hard as I can."
If that isn't a near-perfect expression of the "American Dream," I don't know what is.
Those words were spoken to me by an 18-year-old girl whose life is a near-perfect contradiction of the sentiment she so eloquently articulated. (See story, "Their dreams deferred: RHS immigrant graduates in limbo.")
Shy, smart, soft-spoken — without a hint of an accent in her speech — she talked about how her parents first told her she was an undocumented immigrant. She lamented not being able to get a driver's license, or a job. But her biggest lament by far was not being able to attend the college of her dreams, a prestigious private school to which she was offered admission. She can't go because she doesn't have a green card or visa.
A male classmate who shares her predicament said he knows a lot of people in the same boat.
"We're as Americanized as we can be," he said. "We can make a great contribution to this country — our country. We didn't choose to come here. But this is our home."
I'd begun thinking about writing a story on immigrant children after it struck me that the top three students in the graduating class of 2012 were all immigrants — immigrants from three countries on two continents. Now that exemplifies the American Dream, does it not?
Yes — but only if they are afforded the opportunity to pursue the American Dream once they graduate from high school. For "undocumented childhood arrivals" the future is uncertain.
Hope emerged in the form of an executive order by President Obama in June. It allows young people (under age 31) who arrived in the U.S. at 16 years of age or younger to apply for a delay of deportation. It also allows them to be legally employed.
Some — politicians and pot-stirrers — were quick to shout "amnesty." That's the buzz word guaranteed to touch off a storm of controversy. Works every time. And it's one of those words that's prevented meaningful immigration reform in the U.S. for more than a decade. It fuels the hysteria that even prevents rational discussion of the issue.
There can be no doubt immigration reform is needed. The evidence is the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the USA. The system is broken. Our laws are more than 20 years old and, among other things, do not reflect current economic realities. For instance, for employment-based immigration, the law limits the number of green cards to 5,000 per year for the entire country for workers such as landscapers, hotel workers and construction workers. That is ridiculously insufficient and this limit is the central reason for our unauthorized immigration problem.
Unauthorized immigrants would rather come into the country legally, but there are, in fact, very few ways to do that. Immigration is restricted to a few categories: family immigration, which is strictly limited and requires a legal permanent resident or citizen to file petition the U.S. government; employment-based immigration for people in eligible professions; and refugees — people who can prove a “well‐founded fear of persecution." (Poverty in their country of origin doesn't qualify.) Most do not have the necessary family relationships to apply for legal entry, do not qualify as refugees, and do not work in professions that currently qualify for a green card. In addition, there are numerical annual caps on each type of immigration category.
This sheds much light on why there are 11 million immigrants here without authorization.
If today's requirements existed in the 1840s to the 1920s, when the ancestors of the people hollering about undocumented Hispanic immigrants came to America, we wouldn't be having this argument because they wouldn't have qualified to enter legally.
Today's descendants of those immigrants can be awfully high and mighty — and very loud — about how current foreign-born residents should immigrate legally "like our ancestors." But this is another ill-informed argument.
Until the late 19th century, there weren't too many laws to break — there was very little regulation of immigration. There was no general immigration law until 1882, no agency responsible for enforcing any immigration rules until 1891, and no requirement for a visa to enter the U.S. until 1924. There were no numerical limits on immigration until the 1920s. The borders remained open and, largely, unguarded.
In contrast, today we're spending nearly $12 billion a year on the customs and border patrol division of the Department of Homeland Security — $3 billion a year on border patrol alone. And it isn't working — in spite of the hundreds of miles of fence already erected along our southern border. More than 1,400 miles remain unfenced and it would cost another $25 billion to change that. Sorry, but that's not how I'd like to see America spend its money.
The fence is a red herring. So is the notion that the country can somehow deport all 11 million unauthorized residents. Realistically, now: How do you move 11 MILLION people out of the country? The whole situation is insane, though it makes great fodder for the talking heads on TV and for rousing oratory by political candidates — all designed to get the rest of us very worked up about an issue that could be resolved if it were not for the red-herring arguments and inflammatory rhetoric.
Personally, I think public anger is very misdirected. Instead of being angry about allowing Central and South Americans into North America to "take our jobs" — another red herring because they're generally doing work the rest of us won't do — we should be angry about allowing American jobs to be exported to Mexico and overseas by companies that outsource work we would do to places where workers are paid pennies per hour.
But then, it's convenient to have the American public get all lathered up about issues like "illegals" if it helps distract our attention from things that have a much more profound impact on our economic well-being and quality of life.
Meanwhile, young adults like the "childhood arrivals" who graduated in June, remain in limbo. Even though they are among the best and the brightest, they can't realize their potential. What's the future of a society that treats its children this way, where laws and policies converge to quash potential instead of nurture it?
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
engraved in a tablet on the pedastal of
"the Mother of Exiles," Lady Liberty.
Denise Civiletti, native New Yorker, born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island is the great-granddaughter of Italian and Sicilian immigrants who came through Ellis Island in the 19th Century. She lives in Riverhead with her husband, RiverheadLOCAL co-publisher Peter Blasl, whose ancestors came from England in the 17th Century, France, Poland and Germany in the 19th Century.