The DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) was in the news again last week. The House Rules Committee heard Republican lawmakers’ proposal to allow immigrants brought to the country illegally as children to earn permanent residency by serving in the military. It was the closest the House has come to finally voting on this perennial, contentious issue, and the proposal was rejected.
At times, I’ve not liked the name “DREAM Act.” I’ve worried that the cutesy acronym connotes a frivolous idealism that could diminish the weight of the legislative proposal first introduced in the Senate more than a decade ago.
I’ve heard all the protests. I know people are consumed with narco-fears. But it isn’t true that everyone who crosses the border illegally or who is living as an undocumented human being in the United States is in this country hell-bent on terrorism or violent criminal acts. The United States was built through the toil of immigrants, many of them undocumented perhaps during at least part of their time in their new country.
In May of 2011, on a trip to El Paso, anticipating the usual counterarguments from his opponents in the GOP-controlled House, President Obama shared with the audience that Albert Einstein, Issac Asimov and Andrew Carnegie were immigrants, too, and that they are evidence enough for us all to support the innumerable and, for now, faceless and nameless boys and girls with “a dream and potential.”
I know those kids. They do have faces and names and stories worth sharing.
In 2010, I met a student in my freshman composition course; I’ll refer to him here as Juan although the young man’s name—one he shares with a famous Brazilian soccer star—is quite uncommon. I wonder now if his parents could perceive something in their son, if they could predict that Juan would be as skilled on the soccer field as his futbolista tocayo or namesake.
Juan came to the United States from a small town in the Mexican state of Guanajuato in 2005. He graduated from a high school in a large Texas city where he excelled in his studies and in soccer. In an online article in his hometown newspaper, his coach described him as a “leader” with a “strong work ethic.” He also pointed out that Juan was invariably “accurate” and “left-footed,” a quality which is apparently keenly important in soccer.
Juan’s skills on the soccer field seemed to represent his qualities off the field, too. He consistently showed a hunger to learn as much as possible and worked hard to do well.
That semester the English department adopted the book “The Unknown Errors of Our Lives,” a collection of short stories by award-winning Indian author Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. The stories in the book carry heavy themes with characters at a crossroads, in between the dichotomous conflicts of the diaspora: past vs. present; assimilation vs. tradition; home vs. the new country.
I should not have been surprised that Juan found the stories so resonant. He held forth passionately and earnestly during class discussions. He analyzed the stories as well as, if not better than, some of the students in my upper-level literature courses. For weeks and months, Juan worked as hard as any student I’ve known in my almost 25 years as a college teacher of English. In creative assignments he wove nonfiction narratives about his Mexican village. He wrote with poignancy about his grandmother who passed away in the intervening years since his move to the United States. Even having experienced such sorrow, abject poverty, and primitive living conditions, Juan recalled and recorded his childhood as idyllic.
In one journal entry, one that calls to mind Joyce’s “Araby,” Juan wrote about a time he hid in the cover of night in the hopes of seeing the object of his teen-aged affection. The words, however, seem to describe another kind of hiding and another kind of fear of being discovered while he quietly and thoughtfully chased his illusion:
“During a young night when the full moon lit the sky, I found myself looking at the obtrusive metal door of a house. I was there in search of an illusion…I did not worry about being discovered by a stranger there. I worried over the familiar, not the unknown. I feared being questioned by someone who knew me about what in the world I was doing there.”
Juan informed me that he would not return to the university in the fall. “I don’t have my papers,” he said sheepishly, though he looked me straight in the eye. He explained that the state and federal budget cuts we had all been hearing and reading about would surely mean that resources for students categorized as “undocumented” would be the first to be cut.
“I can’t afford to come back to school,” he said.
With a knuckle he pushed his wire-rimmed glasses up along the bridge of his nose. “I wish I could apply for financial aid like my classmates. But things are different for me.” I asked him what he planned to do next. “I need to go back home and help my parents and save money so my little sister can go to college.”
I asked him if he’d considered joining the university’s soccer team, that maybe there were athletics scholarships to be had. I figured the life-long lure of soccer would be enough for him to investigate the question. “No,” he said. “Soccer is an old dream. Now my education is all I care about.”
I just cannot make myself believe that Juan will not succeed, will not reap the benefits of his hard work and good efforts, that his illusion will be dashed. Juan and students like him help me remember the faith that ruled my life when I was a young teacher and that I cling to with a desperate finger-grip still today.
On second thought, maybe “Dream Act” is just the right name after all.
*Featured/top image: Sign in favor of immigration reform are on display outside Judson Memorial Church on West 4th Street in New York CIty on June 5, 2010. See more here. Photo by Jens Schott Knudsen via Flickr.