06/27/2012 05:58 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2012

Exposure Important in Immigration Debate

Monday's Supreme Court ruling blocking parts of Arizona's controversial immigration law and President Obama's June 15 policy enforcement change halting the deportation of some undocumented immigrants have brought the immigration reform debate back into the national spotlight. Yet after hearing cries against Obama's protections for undocumented youth and the Supreme Court's decision, I wondered to myself: how many people actually know an undocumented immigrant? Regardless of your views on illegal immigration, it is important, as in any debate, to consider the different perspectives at hand. Exposure to undocumented immigrants is essential in humanizing and understanding the undocumented immigrant's point of view in this larger debate over immigration reform.

Undocumented immigrants, for obvious reasons, do not tend to be very open about their status, so it came as little surprise that the first time I found out that someone I knew was an undocumented immigrant was by accident. As an editor for my college's newspaper, I was reviewing an article about the experiences of undocumented immigrant students, all of whom remained anonymous in the article. Yet the draft of the article gave enough information about one source that I knew exactly who he was. (The article was revised to protect his anonymity.) I had had a couple classes with this person and was always impressed by his well-thought out comments and unique perspective; I would often chat with him for a few minutes when I ran into him on campus. Before I knew that this person was undocumented, I didn't think of anyone in particular when I heard politicians talk about deportation or the DREAM Act. Now, a face comes to mind; I am instantly reminded of how the immigration debate affects not just abstract figures, but someone I know who was brought into the U.S. as a child and has much to offer this country, if only he can stay.

Realizing that people we know -- our neighbors, classmates, and other acquaintances -- are undocumented is key to understanding undocumented immigrant experiences. When the immigrant is someone you know and trust, you realize that they are well-intentioned and were either brought to the United States by no fault of their own or simply wanted a better life for their family. Exposure begets understanding with any marginalized group; it's easy to say that illegal immigrants are bad people if you've never met one. If only each person in the U.S. met someone who was open about their status as an undocumented immigrant, and if only they truly got to know that person, perceptions about undocumented immigrants would change. We've already seen this with other phenomema: contact with members of racial and ethnic minorities reduces prejudice toward them, and people who know someone who is lesbian or gay are more likely to support marriage equality and LGB rights than those who do not.

I do not blame undocumented immigrants for not talking about their status. For one, they could face deportation if word got out, and for two, nobody expects me to talk about my citizenship status, so why should I expect them to tell me theirs? However, I do hope that Obama's recent announcement halting the deportations of DREAM Act eligible individuals will give more undocumented immigrants the courage to live openly, in the process helping others (myself included) better understand their dreams and experiences.

In fact, an acquaintance from college did just that. Empowered by Obama's announcement, he posted on Facebook about his status as an undocumented immigrant who came to the U.S. from Chile at the age of four. He described how he worked hard to get into college, was discouraged when Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act, yet now has hope for his future. He ended by writing that "I may not be a citizen, but America is my home, and this is where I want to have all my dreams become realities!"

I shed a tear reading his emotional post. This was not just some statistic, or a stranger in a news article; this was someone I knew who had been struggling with an uncertain future because politicians punish him for someone else's decision. It is hard to fathom what it is like working hard toward an education while wondering whether you will ever get to work or will be deported to an unfamiliar land. Yet I can imagine a little more knowing about this person's story. I admire his courage for speaking openly, and I only hope that others will feel comfortable sharing their experiences, too. As we continue to debate immigration reform, it is important to remember the often silent voices like these from people we know; no discussion will be complete without them.