Following massive demonstrations across the country in 2006 for comprehensive immigration reform, the most visible results have been militarization of the border, congressional approval of a 700-mile fence between the U.S. and Mexico, and a nervous and tentative Congress.Opponents of comprehensive immigration reform fear a blanket amnesty for people they consider to be "lawbreakers." That sole point of contention is likely to cause Congress to do nothing on immigration reform again this year, no matter how loud or large the demonstrations.
Unfortunately, the lives and futures of innocent children and young adults are lost in the debate. There is, however, a solution with strong bipartisan support pending in Congress in the form of the American Dream Act (HR1275). Its supporters range from Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah to Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.
If approved, the American Dream Act would grant temporary legal status to college-bound undocumented students who have lived in the U.S. for at least five years. Upon completing at least two years of college or the military, the students would be eligible to apply for permanent legal status, putting them on a path toward citizenship.
Should the immigration stalemate continue, what I fear and dread most is continuing to look into the eyes of educated and talented young people whose only "crime" was obeying their parents when they crossed the border. Some came as infants, so they bear even less culpability.
While more and more are graduating from our high schools -- some with honors, others as valedictorians of their senior classes -- they're conflicted about going to college. After all, they reason: "Even if I graduate from college, I won't be allowed to work." One student with a 3.7 high school grade point average wrote to me recently of being "without hope of an education and without hope of a future."
Despite the obstacles, some find a way to earn college degrees, fully prepared to teach in our schools or to be lawyers, engineers and doctors. But unless immigration policies change, they need not apply to work, at least not as professionals.
Most citizens remain unaware of the permissive and manipulative immigration practices that have made it relatively easy for agriculture and other low-wage industries, spanning decades, to employ a steady stream of undocumented workers.
In 1998, for example, INS agents made the mistake of conducting raids in Georgia's internationally acclaimed onion fields in June, something akin to conducting raids during Washington's cherry and apple harvests. The Washington Post Weekly (July 13, 1998) reported that "a couple of growers at one farm stood their ground, telling the federal agents to get off their land. The raids, the well-publicized confrontation and, above all, anxious calls for help from onion farmers sent two Republican lawmakers from Georgia hurrying home from Washington (D.C.) to rein in the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
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"Meanwhile, they and other members of Georgia's congressional delegation sent a letter protesting the raid to the secretaries of Labor and Agriculture and to the attorney general. Within days, the INS agreed not to interfere with this year's harvest," The Post reported.
When similar raids were conducted during the cherry harvest in our state, The News Tribune, June 8, 1997, reported that three members of Washington's congressional delegation joined farmers in complaining about "overzealous tactics" and "too much INS activity."
This is how the nation's "top lawmakers" intervene to protect industries that rely on a steady stream of cheap labor, and how campaign contributions are earned. And we, as consumers, have all benefited by paying the lowest prices for our agricultural products of any other industrialized nation in the world.
Approval by Congress of the American DREAM Act would be an important first step toward rectifying a broken, easily manipulated, immigration system. I believe the vast majority of U.S. citizens would applaud the Congress for demonstrating that it has the wisdom, courage and compassion to do what is right for thousands of scholars who were educated here, and who did not willfully break our laws.
By approving the DREAM Act the Congress could prove to itself that progress is possible on this seemingly intractable issue, and it could provide the needed momentum to set aside the partisan maneuvering that threatens to deny progress on comprehensive immigration reform.
To move the Congress to this level, it won't be demonstrations in the streets that will make the difference. It will be you.
No young scholar educated in the United States should be "without hope of an education and without hope of a future."
Ricardo Sanchez is chairman and founder of the Latino/a Educational Achievement Project, a statewide education organization based in the Seattle area; firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2007 Seattle Post-Intelligencer