Last week a student walked into my room whom I hadn’t seen in two years. He came in with a big smile, gave me a real handshake, and asked about my wife and kid. He looked good, healthy, he had a coffee in his hand. He was confident.
Then his eyes fell to the ground and he asked me if I could write him a letter.
His eyes stayed on the ground as he explained to me that he was applying for one of the work permits now being considered for illegal immigrants under thirty whose parents brought them over when they were young. My former student, we’ll call him Jeff, has never known another country but this one. This is his home; it has always been his home, but Jeff isn’t able to look me in the eye because to many, he is a criminal, a degenerate, and should be deported.
His eyes don’t rise until I almost shout, with as much enthusiasm as I can muster, that I would LOVE to write him a letter of reference. Evidently letters from professionals like myself strengthen an application for these youngsters who want nothing more than to fit in, work, go to school, and live a life of love and happiness. I told him to come back tomorrow, and wrote him a gleaming letter of rec, which is my specialty.
I won’t forget his face as he read the letter—his eyes carefully tracking the words, just as I had taught him for two years in my English class—the gratitude on his face—the uncomfortable silence as he finished, trying to find the words to thank me as I folded the letter up and put it in a sealed envelope. It is for moments like this that we become teachers. Jeff shook my hand again and then he was gone.
I can’t remember if I knew he was an illegal immigrant when he was my student. So many of them have passed through my classroom that finding out a student’s legal status in this country to me is almost meaningless. I teach them no matter what, and maybe it’s because I was born and raised in California, but I don’t hate them. I love them.
Teaching English Language Learner classes at my school is kind of nice. The kids in those small classes, fresh from other countries, really really want to learn English. They KNOW how important it is to learn the language of the country, and so many of them are wonderful, intelligent, hardworking students—as opposed to the classes full of Americans who really really want to sext each other and get in fights. Ask a high school teacher, who teaches in a school like mine, which students give them the most problems—they’ll tell you it’s the kids who are born here—Americans.
Last year two undocumented seniors came into my room asking for help with their personal statements. They wanted them to be perfect even though they weren’t sure they could even apply to most of the colleges on their list—if any. While we were working, a couple of other students came in and saw what we were working on. They laughed and said they probably weren’t even going to apply to college, and if they did it would be last minute. They got a text message, and left the room giggling. One of the students sitting by me got tears in her eyes, after an already hectic day of studying, and said, “They just don’t understand the opportunity they have.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
According to the Department of Homeland Security, the following criteria will be considered for deferment of deportation for a two year period during which time these folks can apply for a work permit:
1. Came to the United States under the age of sixteen;
2. Have continuously resided in the United States for a least five years preceding the date of this memorandum and are present in the United States on the date of this memorandum;
3. Are currently in school, have graduated from high school, have obtained a general education development certificate, or are honorably discharged veterans of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States;
4. Have not been convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor offense, multiple misdemeanor offenses, or otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety;
5. Are not above the age of thirty.
In a nation full of screaming heads, talking points, and HATE, this is a reasonable approach to a very complicated problem. Immigration reform is so nuanced there don’t seem to be many airtight arguments in favor of any viewpoint. There are always sticking points and uncomfortable realities. But as Harper Lee reminds us in her civil rights classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, before you hate someone, walk around in their shoes first.
What would you have done if, when you turned seven, you came to some rudimentary understanding that for some reason, you didn’t belong here? You weren’t sure why, and as the years passed you became more and more certain of it until it solidified into reality: your parents brought you here illegally, and you could be deported at any moment to a foreign country you have never known. Honestly, just put yourself in those shoes for a little minute and see how comfortable they are.
The point is this. I can’t get Jeff’s eyes out of my mind, looking down at the floor when admitting to me for the first time he was not a citizen of this country. Because it shouldn’t be like that. Kids like Jeff should be able to walk around this world with their heads held high. Jeff has done everything right in his life and nothing wrong. He isn’t a criminal. Try as he might, he just couldn’t keep his parents from taking him to this country when he was four—his fingers just weren’t big enough to dig into the soil of Mexico and cling to the country where his parents felt they didn’t stand a chance. Maybe you think his parents are criminals, even though if it was you, you damn well know you’d do the same thing. But to think Jeff is culpable is not only ridiculous it is heartless—especially in a country full of immigrants who all came here for a better life.
I hope Jeff gets a job, and I hope he can stay here. I hope he can become an American, because I would be proud to call him my countryman. And if he gets a job over an American citizen, well, maybe that person should have tried a little harder. Maybe they too should have been exceptional—isn’t that the word we’re using these days? Maybe they too should have sacrificed, like Jeff, to achieve a dream.