Putting a face to the name ‘illegal’


Yesterday Jose Antonio Vargas , the Pulitzer-winning journalist who told his own story about being an undocumented immigrant, was present as the DREAM Act had its very first hearing in the United States Senate. The debate comes 10 years after the first version of the bill was introduced in the Senate (by Republican Senator Orrin Hatch). Now that Republicans no longer like the idea of reforming immigration policy, it is left to Democratic Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, who simply refuses to quit on this. He countered the Republican boogeyman talk about border security and “illegals” in yesterday’s hearing by putting a face to the issue at hand.

Senator Durbin introduced to the assembled Senators and gallery a number of people who, including Mr. Vargas, were accomplished, yet still undocumented, immigrants. One was 21-year-old Angelica Hernandez, the 2011 valedictorian of the mechanical-engineering class at Arizona State University. The Arizona Republic reports:

“We’re not afraid anymore,” Hernandez said in an interview. “I think that coming out publicly is something that needs to be done. I’ve seen how effective it has been for people to stand up and put a real face to this issue. I think it is a risk, but I think it’s a risk worth taking.”

It now seems unlikely that Mr. Vargas or Ms. Hernandez would be targeted for deportation, even by a Homeland Security department that, as we reported on Monday, is likely to hit the one-million-deported benchmark sometime this summer. In a June 17 memo (PDF) to immigration enforcement officials, the Obama administration requested the use of prosecutorial discretion when considering deportation cases. In other words, ease back on sending folks away who are doing positive things here in this country.

That is why Mr. Vargas’ revelation is so relevant, particularly to this newly revived policy discussion about the DREAM Act.

You can understand now why he has started a site, DefineAmerican.com, that seeks to tell the stories of immigrants, documented or undocumented. We just saw a few Republican state senators in New York State vote to legalize same-sex marriage, some of whom changed their vote to “yes” simply because they know someone who is gay. We talk about “changing hearts and minds” with war, but rarely so in the context of policy. Writing for the Nation (via NPR), author and activist Courtney E. Martin:

Their stories demonstrate that there is no reasonable option for undocumented immigrants like Vargas, who don’t have an identity or a community rooted in the country of their birth, but whose only option for obtaining American citizenship was, as an immigration lawyer told him, leaving the country, accepting a 10-year ban on returning, and then applying to return legally. Their real life experiences reveal just how illogical, unsustainable, and unjust our current immigration policies really are, and how desperately we need comprehensive reform.