An American Dream -- Denied

An American Dream -- Denied

By Ruben Navarrette - February 10, 2010

SAN DIEGO -- Never mind baseball. The real national pastime is talking down illegal immigrants. We depict them negatively, crudely and simplistically. We see them as criminals, takers, predators, loafers, usurpers, etc. We define them in full based on just one characteristic: their legal status.

This is not to excuse the fact that they either came to this country illegally, or overstayed a visa. As I've said many times, I think illegal immigrants, once detected, should be detained and deported. I just don't see the need to demonize them in the process.

So many Americans are so sure that they have illegal immigrants figured out -- even though most of us, I imagine, have never had a conversation with one. In fairness, we should hear these people out when they want to tell their side of the story.

Which brings me to an interesting exchange I had recently with a reader named Joe. He's a 22-year-old college graduate who says he has been in the United States illegally since his parents emigrated from Lebanon when he was 8 months old. Joe thinks of himself as an American, and he wants to go to law school and become an attorney. He says that he graduated from Boston College with a 3.2 GPA in a double major: political science and Arabic studies. Joe says he wants to work for the U.S. government -- the same entity that has, for the last two years, been trying to deport him.

Nothing about Joe's ordeal seems fair -- least of all to him.

"I'm more American than a lot of Americans I know," he wrote. "I've had friends who have been arrested, caused trouble, failed out of school, and have done other disrespectful things, but it is OK for them to do so because they are U.S. citizens. I have never been in trouble, ever."

Joe says it's not a question of him not wanting to become a citizen. He doesn't have that option, he says, even though he has "paid taxes since the day I started working when I was 16 years old" and even though he continues to work and pay taxes now. He considers himself "an asset to this country," but he feels like he is "being disregarded as trash" and in danger of being exiled to a foreign country that he wouldn't recognize.

Joe says his parents fled Lebanon in the 1980s for two reasons: His brother had leukemia and required chemotherapy, and the country was engulfed in a civil war. Joe says his parents didn't tell him that the family was in the United States illegally until he was applying for college. The way he sees it, the immigration system is broken -- so broken that a story like his makes no sense.

"I've lived my entire life as an American," Joe says. "And still, I consider myself an American despite what I am going through. I am an English speaker. I studied American history. I grew up here, and this is my home."

Obviously, he's anxious about the future. And the irony of his situation doesn't escape him.

"What am I supposed to do," Joe asks, "if I am sent back to Lebanon, a country that I am completely unfamiliar with? They won't accept me; I am American, regardless of what my passport says. On paper, I may not be an American. But in reality, I am the epitome of the word and everything that comes with it. I have an American dream and it is simple: to be a U.S. citizen. I've already done the rest."

I can't authenticate Joe's story, but I've heard countless others like it. There should be a way for people like Joe to stay in this country and continue to contribute. Does anyone believe that the United States would suffer as a result? It wouldn't. In fact, the truth is, it faces a greater threat from unproductive U.S.-born teens and 20-somethings with their debilitating sense of entitlement. The law should be changed to allow illegal immigrants like Joe to make amends and achieve legal status.

But until this happens, he's got to go. And if he really thinks of himself as an American and really considers himself part of this country -- which is, after all, a nation of opportunity but also a nation of laws -- then he should understand why.

Copyright 2010, Washington Post Writers Group

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Ruben Navarrette

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