A young man came to the United States when he was seven months old, tucked under his mother’s arm as she crossed the border between Mexico and Nogales, Arizona late at night. He says he remembers it, but of course he doesn’t. What he remembers is the story his mother told him. It has become his own narrative, as much a part of his identity as his Brooklyn accent, his low-slung jeans, his endearing stutter and his love for computer games. He is now 20 and has spent all of his life, except for those first brief months in Puebla, in this country. He is 100 percent American, or as he puts it “100 percent minus seven months” American. He loves this country, girls, school, classical music, and his parents who sacrificed everything so that he could have a better life. He also loves his three brothers and two sisters, all of whom are American citizens.
But he is not an American, according to President Trump and his supporters.
He is just someone who broke the law and, despite the sympathetic reasons for his presence in this country, he doesn’t belong here. His Brooklyn accent should be packed up, along with his academic awards, his certificates for tutoring kids from church, his football gear (he hates soccer), and his collection of vintage Marvel comic books — and he should leave. President Trump and the crew don’t really care where he goes when he leaves the U.S., as long as he leaves the U.S. He is, after all, an illegal.
This young man is a real person, and I have known him since he was 12, when his father first came to my office to fight his own deportation case. At the beginning, he was taciturn and barely looked at me, annoyed at the fact that he had to follow his father to a lawyer’s office when all he wanted to do was go home and watch Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But over the years, we developed a friendship, and I realized what a great kid he really is. I also realized that he’s been living with the fear that at any minute, he and his parents could be picked up and swept back to Mexico, a country they haven’t seen in over two decades.
Unlike other teenagers, he wasn’t ever certain that when he walked out the door in the morning, he would be able to return home at night. He worried that an immigration officer would pick him up, put him on a bus and send him back to grandparents he barely remembers. He worried that he would never see his five younger siblings, who have no idea that he is any different from them. Actually, they do think he’s unique: His baby sister calls him “my hero,” and she thinks he has super powers. In a way, he does. He is able to wake up each morning and confront the unknowable.
Things got better five years when President Obama issued the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — known as DACA — five years ago. Because my friend had been present in the United States when he was a small child, had not yet reached 16 years old, was still in school, had no criminal record and didn’t pose any threat to the public safety, he was granted permission to live and work in this country. He was protected from immediate deportation. But the thing that really made him leap for joy was the fact that he could now get a learner’s permit, like his friends. Life was looking up.
Until this weekend, when we learned that President Trump is expected to announce that he will end protections for young immigrants who were brought into the country illegally as children with a six-month delay. News like this sentences my young friend to always living in the dangerous limbo of being “100 percent American, minus seven months.”
The thing about DACA is that it’s very low-hanging fruit on the tree of anti-immigrant outrage. I hear the complaints of those who don’t want criminal aliens living in this country and preying on innocent citizens. Even though I know that green card holders are the most law-abiding people in the community, I completely understand the desire to get rid of the “bad hombres.”
But DACA kids are good hombres, the best.
If you have committed a crime, you are generally denied DACA benefits, unless it is an inconsequential summary offense like loitering. DACA kids go to school, get their GEDs or diplomas, pursue college educations (paying their own way, of course) and work long hours. They establish businesses. And they love this country, better than many of our native citizens love this country. When they march, it is because they want to stay and contribute, not because they want to criticize and deplete.
President Trump and his supporters don’t see that. They see the seven months, not the 100 percent, and they engage in a zero sum game of “this one belongs, this one doesn’t.”
Moral choices are meant to be difficult. This one wasn’t. Shame on those who failed the test.