When did undocumented kids become Moby-Dick?
When Gov. Jan Brewer speedily signed an executive order banning driver’s licenses to "DREAMer" undocumented immigrants who obtain work permits under a new White House program, I found myself “growing grim about the mouth” like a certain protagonist in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.
In that moody context, a saying from antiquity that tempered the crew of the Pequod leapt to mind: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle.”
But any thoughts of clemency are probably lost on the agitated opponents of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the federal program that provides young undocumented immigrants with a legal means to work or study and avoid deportation for two years. The presidential executive order is aimed at aiding youth, mainly college-bound students and military veterans, who were brought here as children by parents without papers (and whose own status would remain unchanged and, in theory, prosecutable).
Critics huff that “Deferred Action” will unleash a flood of undocumented immigrants into an already poor job market for young Americans. They also decry it as “backdoor amnesty” that as policy circumvents Congress.
Supporters say it is the humane thing to do for earnest, academic-minded children of undocumented families who are now Americans in all but the legal sense. They also cite a recent Merrill/Morrison Institute Poll showing 73 percent of Arizonans as favoring the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented immigrants who graduate from college or serve in the military to become U.S. citizens.
But compassion, as Rush Limbaugh has framed it, “is no substitute for justice” for those hell-bent on upholding the letter of the law. And that’s exactly what Gov. Brewer’s Executive Order 2012-06 (“Re-Affirming Intent of Arizona law In Response to the Federal Government's Deferred Action Program”) does. Since existing state statues already bar public services and benefits to undocumented immigrants, the decree simply enforces the status quo.
Some 80,000 undocumented young people in the state who might qualify for Deferred Action would continue to be barred from state-subsidized childcare, unemployment benefits, driver’s licenses, business or professional licenses and government contracts. However, questions are being raised about the legality of Brewer’s order. The Maricopa Community Colleges said federal work authorization cards can in fact be used to establish "legal presence" in Arizona, according to The Arizona Republic. That means lawsuits, federal or otherwise, could be in the offing.
Nevertheless, the governor’s office is sticking by its disinterest in legal discretion. "As the [Department of Homeland Security] has said repeatedly ... these individuals do not have lawful status," spokesman Matthew Benson told The Republic. The governor's order "is about defending existing state law," he said to underline the point.
Fair enough. But what really has been accomplished?
“Call me Ishmael,” for a familiar whiff of obsession is in the air. When mulling the state’s breakneck response to Deferred Action, it’s hard not to think of Ahab’s chilly words of revenge as he hurled his last harpoon at Moby-Dick: “… to the last I grapple with thee; for hate's sake I spit my last breath at thee.”
But more seriously, when did the children of undocumented immigrants – who, in the main, were toddlers without a vote when the border was crossed – become miniature versions of Melville’s pitiless white whale?
Some critics of President Obama’s new program – especially those who ply the “us vs. them” trade – talk as if these kids are simply faceless foreigners bent on gaming the system for handouts. Others, like House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, worry about the potential for swindling, of all things.
"While potentially millions of illegal immigrants will be permitted to compete with American workers for scarce jobs, there seems to be little if any mechanism in place for vetting fraudulent applications and documentation submitted by illegal immigrants," Smith told the Associated Press.
Never mind that applicants must pay a hefty $465 application fee. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, deferred action applicants also must prove they arrived in the U.S. before age 16, are 30 or younger, have been continuously living here for at least 5 years, and are in school or graduated or served in the military. They cannot have a felonious criminal record nor pose a security threat. There is no guarantee of acceptance into the program. Rejections cannot be appealed. The process does not provide lawful status or a pathway to permanent residence or citizenship.
In most cases, we’re talking about kids for whom America is the only home they’ve ever known. In some cases, English is the only language they know. Virtually all wish to attend college if they haven’t done so already. In every case, the families of applicants risk exposure and possible eventual deportation. Still, they are emerging from the shadows anyway for the sake of their children. That’s a telling clue to the character and mettle of some of these migrants.
So who really are these “unlawfully present aliens,” as they are labeled en masse? They are typically young people like:
And it's important to note that not all of the applicants fit the caricaturized “south of the border” profile.
What is striking is how these glimpses of determination, courage, optimism, and true grit against all odds are so quintessentially American. Given half a chance, some of these kids will end up becoming tenured professors, campaigning for public office, running corporations, inventing the next Google or standing a distant military post in harm’s way – all to the benefit of the nation.
Maria Duque, who came to California with her parents at age 5 from Ecuador, told the Pacific News Service that she is anxious to prove she is “truly an American.” Duque said her goal is to “give back” to the country “after years of struggling with her status.”
And these are the people the naysayers so desperately wish to keep at bay?
The state, of course, is well within its rights to enforce the law, and should do so. And though the appropriateness of the governor’s executive order is debatable, it is perfectly legit – the legal questions notwithstanding.
But it’s worth pausing to reflect on the deeper meaning of another passage from Moby-Dick: “In this world, shipmates, sin that pays its way can travel freely, and without a passport; whereas Virtue, if a pauper, is stopped at all frontiers.”
Let’s hope Virtue and compassion does not stop at Arizona’s frontier. The least we can do is lend a welcoming hand to the undocumented kids who’s only “crime” was being born and who now dream only of becoming us in the truest sense.
Morrison Institute for Public Policy is a leader in examining critical Arizona and regional issues, and is a catalyst for public dialogue. An Arizona State University resource, Morrison Institute uses nonpartisan research and communication outreach to help improve the state's quality of life.
Ed Perkins is a policy analyst at the Morrison Institute for Public Policy, an ASU think tank.