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Hector Villagra Headshot

Our True Americanness

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Historian Eric Foner has said that "[l]ike all great historical transformations, emancipation was a process, not a single event. It arose from many causes and was the work of many individuals."

We are now living through and are on the verge of a great historical transformation, as evidenced by the release of the so-called gang of eight's long-awaited immigration proposal. This transformation, some 20 years in the making, has definitely been a process. It has arisen from many causes and is the work of many individuals, but the role of the many individuals known collectively as the Dreamers cannot be gainsaid. Their name refers to the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which was first introduced in Congress in 2001, came up for a vote several times, but never become law. The DREAM Act would have allowed undocumented high-school graduates and GED recipients a pathway to U.S. citizenship through college or the armed services.

The bipartisan group of senators known as the gang of eight unveiled a comprehensive immigration overhaul that at its heart would create a potential roadmap to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

Under the proposal, immigrants who came to the U.S. before December 31, 2011 and who have remained in the country continuously could apply for provisional legal status within six months after the bill becomes law and would be allowed to work lawfully once they pay a penalty and back taxes and if they have not been convicted of a serious crime in the U.S. After 10 years they could apply for a "green card," or permanent resident status, and, after three more years, they could apply for citizenship. The operative word is "could." Whether they are in fact able to adjust will depend on a series of costly, misguided and harmful enforcement triggers focused mainly on the border, which the Department of Homeland Security has declared as more secure than ever.

This roadmap to citizenship lies at the heart of the proposal and gives it soul. Polls now show a strong majority of Americans support providing undocumented immigrants a roadmap to citizenship. In a recent poll, while a slight majority of conservatives oppose the roadmap, nearly three quarters support it when they hear that it would require paying fines and passing a background check.

The process is still far from over, with months of debate and scores of amendments ahead. Some of the debate and amendments will be necessary to correct the proposal's troubling aspects, like its undue emphasis on border security even as illegal immigration is at a 40-year low, its nationwide employment verification system that threatens to create a national ID requirement and undermine the privacy of every American worker, and its continued outsourcing of federal responsibilities to local law enforcement, which will only undermine public safety and lead to Arizona-style racial profiling.

Whatever the hurdles that remain to be cleared, there are many who worked to bring us to this historic point -- including immigrants, civil rights advocates and organizations, labor activists and organizations -- but the Dreamers deserve special recognition. The Dreamers have been at the forefront, advocating not just for themselves but for their families and communities.

Brought to the United States by their parents, the Dreamers have bravely stepped out of the shadows, risking their own safety and deportation. They have come together to share their stories about the fear of living in hiding and the pain of having dreams thwarted by their immigration status, and they have banded together to come out and proudly declare they are "undocumented and unafraid." They have advocated for legislation to allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates. They have lobbied for the DREAM and, when it failed to be enacted, they pressed the case for deferred action. They have since pushed for broader immigration reform.

But, more than this, the Dreamers have changed the public debate and accomplished a fundamental transformation by highlighting their humanity and insisting on their "Americanness." They have shown that the United States is the only home they have ever known, that they have deep roots here, and that they belong here. They have worked hard in school to make the most of the opportunities afforded them, and they have demonstrated a commitment to use their education and labor to contribute to the national well-being. As they have changed the terms of the narrative around immigration, it's hardly surprising to see that a majority in recent polls now sees immigration as strengthening the country.

The way Dreamers have gone about all this has been to use the tried and true strategies employed throughout American history. They have used the freedoms of free speech and assembly to protest what they deem unjust laws. They have petitioned and lobbied elected officials for redress of their grievances, showing tremendous faith in our political system.

Ultimately, they have reminded us what being an American and living the American Dream is all about. They did so by freeing themselves of the fear of being undocumented and then freeing us to consider anew what defines us as a people.