October 23, 2005
Latino Advancement Requires Realistic Thinking

By Ruben Navarrette Jr.

SAN DIEGO -- I get accused of always defending Latinos. But sometimes what they really need is a good scolding.

Like on those occasions when Latino activists go into left field and start advocating totally impractical policies that add nothing to the national discourse on important and controversial issues.

I got an earful of that recently when I was asked to join in a town hall meeting in Dallas organized by Hispanic CREO, a Washington-based educational reform group dedicated to giving Latino parents more choices regarding their children's education.

My fellow panelists and I were expected to talk about education and how Latinos could demand and receive more from public schools that are doing future generations a disservice with a mixture of neglect, excuses and low expectations.

My own solution to the educational crisis is all about self-help. Latinos can't sit around waiting for teachers and principals to suddenly develop higher expectations for them. Rather, Latino parents need to understand the power they have to pressure those students to take tougher classes, work harder and get grades that are so good no one can keep them down.

The same principle applies to the subject that the audience really wanted to talk about above all others: illegal immigration. And it was during that discussion that reality went out the window.

It started when a woman who identified herself as a teacher asked what she was supposed to tell parents (who were illegal immigrants) about why their children (who were also here illegally) couldn't go to college or apply for financial aid, even after they had worked hard and earned good grades.

You see, typically, the pursuit of higher education requires a valid Social Security number, which illegal immigrants don't have. Some states also require that undocumented immigrant students pay exorbitantly high out-of-state tuition rates, even if they and their families have lived in that particular state and paid taxes for years.

My answer to the question shocked some in the mostly Latino audience: Tell the parents they made a terrible mistake when they came into the country illegally, and that they compounded that mistake every day that they stayed here without legal documentation. Explain to them that our actions have consequences and that one consequence of their decision to trespass across the border into the United States is that they and their children were destined to live lives that may never realize their full potential. Make them understand that, while they may be splendid parents in every other way, they did their children a great disservice by leaving them to wander in the shadows. Whether they can go to college is the least of their worries. I don't care if the children are honor students, they can be picked up and deported at any time. And now, unless there are substantial legislative changes -- like the enactment of the federal Dream Act championed by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, which would allow illegal immigrant students to attend college -- there is not much any of us can do for these children.

The good news is that there is still quite a bit that parents can do for their children. They can contact an immigration lawyer or a low-cost legal clinic and ask how it is that one begins the long and often expensive process for obtaining legal residency. I told the crowd that I knew of one person who spent 12 years and more than $12,000 to convert her status, and that of her son, from ``illegal'' to ``legal.'' That brought gasps. Apparently, that sounded like a lot of money. It isn't, I told them. It's $1,000 per year, or about $80 a month. I know immigrants who spend that on their monthly cell phone bill, and this is much more important. If these illegal immigrant parents don't want to do it for themselves, then they should do it for their children.

I received scattered applause, but it was nothing compared to the rousing response that went to another panelist -- Raul Yzaguirre, former president of the National Council of La Raza -- when he said that he didn't like the term ``illegal immigrant'' because he didn't think that people who came to this country to feed their families should be considered criminals.

What else would we call them? They broke the law. We can be sympathetic to their plight without condoning their actions. In order for Latinos to make real progress, first they have to stay in the real world.

© 2005, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Ruben Navarrette Jr.

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