A Modest Proposal: Send Undocumented Students Home

There's no doubt in my mind that national security comes from teaching and relying upon those that we have among us.
10/13/2006 02:18 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Thursday afternoon at Cal State LA, my good friend Erika Glazer joined with progressive heroes Congresswoman Hilda Solis, State Senator Gil Cedillo and Assembly member Hector de la Torre to kick off a major fund to send undocumented students home. The first five students were given a mighty lift on their journey today. You see, we welcomed these smart, tough, determined fighting kids, who have been in the US since they are were as young as one or as old as about ten, to America, because that IS home.

Erika endowed a scholarship program to the tune of $1 million to the Liberty Hill Foundation in Los Angeles last December to assure that the playing field is leveled for at least five undocumented students every year here in California. She did that because she had just finished the process of filling out myriad college applications for her son. She realized that scholarships exist for nearly every "specialty" on the planet, except that undocumented kids are specifically excluded from most and never mentioned in any. If you are Jewish, Catholic, Lutheran, of Irish, Italian, Indian or Israeli decent, if your family hails from Egypt or Syria or Pakistan, if you like math, but don't spell so well, if your dad went to Yale and your mom was a hippie, if you teach horses to count, dogs to speak or birds to swim, you can get a scholarship. But if you are "undocumented," you can work for $6.25 an hour at Burger King.

Sounds fair to me. After all, these kids made the mistake of being born to parents who moved them as babes to the land of opportunity. They planned it out really carefully, just like I planned to be born queer and my sister planned to lose her hearing. That's what kids do; they wait around in the womb until just the right moment to decide their future and then they plague society. (Oh, sorry, that'll get us into the whole stem cell thing and that's for another time.)

Five young men yesterday stood proud and spoke in perfect, unaccented, American English to tell their stories. Two had gotten straight As at Belmont High, one had gone to the downtown magnet school. One of them said that he had gotten such high grades and test scores, that he'd gotten into three University of California schools (think UCLA and Berkeley) and two Cal States. He was delighted when he got the letters of admission, but he was shocked that there was no financial aid. His parents make minimum wage. He has worked a job during high school, but there was no way he could begin to afford college. He thought that, at age 18, he faced a lifetime of minimum wage jobs rather than having a shot at the American dream, at the California dream, at improving society.

His guidance counselor told him about the new Glazer Scholarships. She drove his application to Liberty Hill. Two weeks later he got a full scholarship to Cal State LA. He stopped during his talk, he stopped to cry. It took him a minute to gain his composure, although those of us in the room never did. This fellow was a year old when he arrived in LA. California law requires him to finish twelve grades of education. He did that. But California law then prevents him from getting any help going to college. Go figure. Teach a man to fish, but then take away the water. Sounds good to me.

Most of these kids want to study math and engineering. They want to teach and lead and live in America. Watching them, I could see that they'd be about as comfortable in Mexico or El Salvador as I would in Ukraine, where my grandparents came from.

The immigration issue is thorny and divisive. Along with other forms of the politics of division, it's used by demagogues on the right to scare us, to tell us that somehow these kids will take our jobs and ruin our lives. Sixty years ago, those same sorts of politicians told us that Jews coming to the US would soil our nation, somehow reduce America to a pointy-nosed oligopoly. Even though such low lives as Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard and Edward Teller made it beyond the gates of prejudice, millions more perished in the flames of Nazi Germany.

Over the past decade or so, the gay community has received the benefit of the descendents of the Ku Klux Klan, always robed in the religion of hate, determined to sell us on the idea that a couple of guys down the street would somehow destroy the most powerful country in the history of the world. The only destruction that has occurred is from the far right that teaches its acolytes it is far better to hide and repress oneself than to live and give the most to our America.

These five kids will be doctors and engineers and scientists in a nation that produces fewer and fewer technically competent professionals while China and India graduate more of those self same engineers and scientists than we have kids in college studying anything. They are the new blood of a gene pool that reinvents America every two generations or so and keeps us at the top of the world. I'm really not sure what to do about immigration in the future, but having met these boys yesterday, having seen a school that takes risks to lead in its community, there's no doubt in my mind that national security comes from teaching and relying upon those that we have among us. Each student in turn said, "I don't want special privileges; I want an equal opportunity."

I want the America that brought my grandparents here, that kept my parents from being gassed and that allowed me to flourish, even though I'm not straight, white and protestant. I want the American dream that is a tapestry that gains strength from diversity, not existence from tolerance or power from hatred. I want the America that creates an Erika Glazer, who takes great privilege and assures that our future rests squarely in the minds and hands of those who are most determined to make it strong. That's the America I watched yesterday at Cal State LA and that's the America that will, singularly, deal with the buffeting of globalization we face as the world flattens.