05/21/2010 01:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Recognizing the Human Rights of Immigrant Children

The responses to my May 7th essay about the effects of Arizona law on children were illuminating.

I put children at the center of my argument. This may be dismissed as a rhetorical strategy to play on the emotions of readers.

But what would it mean to look the children of immigrants in the eye and call them "anchor babies," or criminals? What does the label "illegal alien" mean to a child, when applied to people she loves? And how does it feel to grow up in America, learning that this is a "nation of immigrants," but that you and your family are not wanted or liked by "American people?"

To put children at the center of our arguments is to appeal to something beyond cold reason, because children are symbols of our future, and how we treat, view, care and talk about them matters for the nation we are, or want to become.

One respondent, who goes by the screen name "Bob Laws," made an important correction, however. In my essay I suggested that police might ask children for documentation. Bob noted that under Title 8, children under the age of 18 are not required to carry or show "papers." Surely, most children don't really even know what such papers are, how one gets them, or why they - or their brothers or cousins or parents - may or may not have them.

But by the time they hit college or the workforce, they will learn what a difference those papers make.

This week I attended a memorial service for two UCLA graduates, Tam Tran and Cinthya Felix, leaders in a group for undocumented students. Tam and Cinthya died in a car crash in Maine. The turnout at their memorial made evident that Tam and Cinthya touched many hearts in their short, "illegal" lives. Had they lived, they surely would have continued making important contributions to the only place they really knew as home - as so many immigrants throughout U.S. history have done.

What is evident from listening to their stories is that Tam and Cinthya were bright and talented young women who wanted a chance to pursue their dreams, even as they worked on behalf of all undocumented students. They were advocates for the Dream Act, by which citizenship would be granted to those who complete two years of college or military service.

Tam's case illustrates the many shades of grey that can exist between "illegal" and "legal;" like many other immigrants, she did not have legal documents to live here but she was not really "illegal" either. She was the child of Vietnamese refugees who fled to Germany. Her parents then joined their aunt in the U.S. and appealed for political asylum in the U.S., only to be denied. They were allowed to stay here, without documents, because they had no place to be deported to.

Recently I worked with students at UCLA to organize a celebration around the U.N. Declaration of the Rights of the Child. This declaration states that all children have the right to "a name and a nationality" and to "be brought up in a spirit of understanding, tolerance, friendship among peoples, peace and universal brotherhood." These are rights that too many children like Tam do not experience.

So this is an unabashed appeal to the hearts of readers: to have empathy for the children of immigrants, if not for immigrants themselves. To recognize the human rights of the 65,000 children who graduate from high school each year without the documents needed to secure college financial aid or legal jobs. Should we send all these children back to some home they have never known? This is a call for comprehensive immigration reform that treats all children and families with dignity and respect.