The DREAM Act, a bill that would have given undocumented children and teenagers a path to citizenship, was voted down by the Senate a few weeks ago, but not before an army of vociferous proponents, including me, had their say. Initially crestfallen by the defeat, I quickly found solace in a single idea: This was a human rights issue as much as, if not more than, it was a political issue. The former was (and is) still very much a part of our national discourse.
Shortly thereafter, I came across a local non-profit organization at 97 Orchard Street in Manhattan, the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, which built on that shining idea. The museum preserves the residential quarters of immigrants, many of whom were processed at Ellis Island, in an effort to capture the essence of what it was like to live as an immigrant. The mission of the museum is to reveal the past so as to inform the present. It seems from what I've managed to glean from their website and other online properties that they take do not take an official position on current immigration policy (the closest I could find to a political stance is a comment on their Facebook fan page with a link to a DREAM Act article). It is clear, however, from their mission and from some programs that they organize, that they are sympathetic to the plight of the immigrant in modern America. That last thought it was struck me.
When the DREAM Act was still in the Senate, I argued in favor of the bill, including in a contentious article in the Huffington Post that drew the ire of numerous readers. I argued from a political perspective, not trying to engage but instead attempting to smite opposing viewpoints with great scimitars of logic and reason. Then when DREAM failed, I reacted viscerally, taking the loss personally on account of my background - an American born to an undocumented family. Had DREAM been up to a vote twenty-five years ago, it would have directly affected my sister and, consequently, my family and me. I tried to brush aside that emotion, believing that it wouldn't hold up under scrutiny, feeling that it wasn't worthy of real consideration. It was when I became aware of this downtown museum that I realized it was precisely that emotion that would engage and further the conversation better than political debate ever could.
It is the stories of modern-day immigrants that will inform those far removed from the immigrant experience. It's easy to take a hard line on immigration when you don't know any immigrants. I can sermonize about immigration policy until I am blue in the face, but nothing can convey how broken our system is like the story of a non-Spanish-speaking, undocumented teenager that was deported to a Spanish-speaking country. The more compelling immigrant stories are and the more they become a part of the American narrative, the better we get to know Jose or Maria, Katarina or Sonam, the closer we come to having DREAM become a reality.