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Original photo: Jeff Topping

Each of us from a different corner of the world, each of us an immigrant in Arizona, we wanted to make a point with our simple declaration – “We’re all immigrants” – the point being that America makes immigrants of us all. In 2007 in Phoenix, Arizona, it was a point lost on too many people. At the time, I was principal of a small high school. My students were mostly poor, their families living at or below the federal poverty level; they weren’t expected to go to college, and many of them had been told they wouldn’t amount to anything. But at that school, we were doing something special. These kids for whom society had the lowest expectations were beating the odds. They were taking college and high school courses simultaneously, some of them graduating from high school and college at the same time.  The “early college” model was working. The school that had languished for years with attendance and drop-out rates at 50% was now boasting a 1.7% drop out rate. The attendance rate was 96%. The students were proving that, yes, they could “do college.”

Then everything changed.

Proposition 300 which was passed overwhelmingly by Arizona’s voters, stipulated that college students who were not legal United States citizens or who were “without lawful immigration status” had to pay out-of-state tuition. It meant that they were no longer eligible for financial assistance using state money. And that meant that as principal, I could no longer use state funding – generated by student enrollment and attendance – to pay college tuition for those students who could not prove residency. There were 37 students affected by the law, students whose parents had brought them to the United States when they were babies. In order to provide them the same educational opportunities as their American born peers, I had to come up with $86,000. And I had to do it on my own time.

When I broke the news to those 37 students, they were devastated. I felt ashamed that I had acquired permanent residence in America so easily – I had merely fallen in love with an American who married me, therefore making it possible for me to stay. People who could have helped me didn’t. Nobody told me what to do – or what not to do – to help young people who wept openly in my office. Their tears forced me into foreign territory – the media. I contacted the Arizona Republic and columnist Ed Montini wrote a column – “Unintended Consequences of Prop 300?” I was convinced that voters didn’t realize that children would be affected by the law, which meant I was wholly unprepared for the negative response, for the hate-filled messages that flooded the newspaper’s internet site. By all accounts, the consequences were most definitely intended.  A TV appearance on Horizonte and a New York Times about our situation helped change some hearts and minds. Some readers – all the way from Australia to Arizona – began to see beyond the stereotypes as they learned of the dreams of aspiring architects, lawyers, doctors, and entrepreneurs. Donations began pouring in, and, anonymously, my students – and their parents – began writing thank you letters. Every letter told a story, a story of a child who took his or her first steps on Arizona soil, who said the Pledge of Allegiance every day at elementary school, who believed the assurances of their teachers that all their dreams would come true if they stayed in school and worked hard.

My America was beginning to feel familiar, reminiscent of another time when I was beginning my teaching career in Belfast, Northern Ireland. In the early 1980s, many of my students had been touched by sectarian violence beyond the school playground. Thus, I learned very early on that classrooms are and should be sacred places, places of hope and possibility, places where dreams begin.

For our efforts in 2008, over just a few months, we raised enough money to pay college tuition for those 37 students – over $100,000. The Hispanic Institute of Social Issues published the students’ thank you letters in a bilingual book, “Documented Dreams,” and everyone who contributed received a copy.

On behalf of those resilient immigrant students, I accepted the City of Phoenix Martin Luther King Living the Dream Award in January 2008. Almost a decade later, I don’t know what became of all of them. Some of them left Arizona, beaten down by SB1070, the DREAM Act unrealized, comprehensive immigration reform elusive still.  Some of them left August 15, 2012, when the Obama administration began accepting requests for consideration of deferred action for childhood arrivals (DACA). While DACA does not provide lawful status or a pathway to permanent residence or citizenship, individuals whose cases are deferred will receive temporary relief from deportation, and they also receive employment authorization. To be eligible for DACA, young undocumented people had to meet the following criteria:

  • You came to the United States before reaching your 16th birthday
  • You have continuously resided in the United States since June 15, 2007, up to the present time
  • You were under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012
  • You entered without inspection before June 15, 2012, or your lawful immigration status expired as of June 15, 2012
  • You are currently in school, have graduated or obtained your certificate of completion from high school, have obtained your general educational development certification, or you are an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States
  • You have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor, or three or more misdemeanors, and do not otherwise pose a threat
  • You were present in the United States on June 15, 2012, and at the time of making your request for consideration of deferred action.

Since DACA’s inception, it has provided temporary relief from deportation as well as work authorization to approximately 800,000 undocumented young people across the country, people like the students at my school. The research is clear that DACA has not only helped improve the lives of these young people, but it has also contributed to an improved economy, benefiting you and me and all Americans.

These educated young people who know only America as a home – almost 800,000 of them – have contributed to their local communities. Out of the shadows, able to get a driver’s license and a social security number, to buy a car or a house, they are a vital part of the fabric of America.

But America is unraveling at breakneck speed in front of my eyes. DACA hangs in the balance with leaks from the Whitehouse suggesting that Donald Trump may end the program as early as this week.

Whatever Trump does, he cannot change the fact that immigration is always about the future and moving forward. It is always about tomorrow, it is about the about the kind of tomorrow Dr. King described in his dream of an America with a place at the table for children of every race … and room at the inn for every needy child.  It is about the kind of tomorrow I dreamed about as a little girl in Northern Ireland where one day Catholics and Protestants would attend the same schools. I still dream of that tomorrow, because I am an immigrant, an American dreamer. Anything is possible in this country, the America that Tom Wolfe described as “a fabulous country, the only fabulous country; it is the only place where miracles not only happen, but where they happen all the time.”

On September 5, 2017, I am hoping for a miracle, but I am wary. Reports from the Whitehouse now indicate that Trump will formally announce his decision to end DACA within six months, in effect breaking the most important promise ever made to these young people who stepped out of the shadows to believe it.

2008 City of Phoenix, Martin Luther King “Living the Dream” Award ~ Acceptance Speech

“Not too long ago, I asked our daughter, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”Without missing a beat, she said, “Happy.”She’s off to a great start. Born in America to legal residents, she has health insurance, a little savings account, a passport. She has a City of Phoenix library card. In several years, she’ll have a driver’s license; soon after that, she’ll be able to vote. She has a Social Security number, the nine digits that will enable her to work. She is well documented. Sadly, there are other daughters and sons in this state who also want to be happy when they grow up but through no fault of their own, they lack the documentation that would make their pursuit of happiness more than just a dream. They are the children of immigrants who have become the collateral damage in this war over immigration. As Seamus Heaney once said, when hearts harden, dreams diminish and possibilities narrow for these young people.215254_1028507874088_2639_n Unlike my daughter, who can join me today to openly celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, these students have no choice other than to live in the shadows, afraid of being forced to leave the country they have always called home.Anna Quindlen writes that “Immigration is never about today; it is always about tomorrow.” It is always about the kind of tomorrow Dr. King described in his dream of an America with a place at the table for children of every race … and room at the inn for every needy child. The kind of tomorrow I dreamed about as a little girl in Northern Ireland where one day Catholics and Protestants would attend the same schools.Basically, Immigration is an exercise in hope, in deferred gratification, and deferred dreams. Dr. King’s dream reminds us that “disappointment is finite, but hope must remain infinite.” The immigrant children among us have little other than hope, but recently they have had to face adversity and disappointment that no child should have to face: disappointed that Proposition 300 limited their access to a college education, disappointed that the DREAM Act died in the Senate, disappointed that there are those who are willing to discard them while, at the same time, to import professionals from other countries to do the very jobs these talented students are qualified to do!  I marvel at the resilience of these young men and women, many of whom have taken their first steps on Arizona soil, placed their hands on their hearts every day to pledge allegiance to the flag of the only country they’ve ever known, and with dedication and gratitude have risen to the educational and social challenges they have faced. This prestigious award belongs to these undocumented  dreamers and their undaunted immigrant spirit. It also belongs to their tireless,  courageous champions who fly below the radar.  In closing, I thank the Arizona Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee for this beautiful morning, and from the bottom of my heart I thank the Phoenix Human Relations Commission and the city of Phoenix Equal Opportunity Department for their courage in presenting this award which I hope is a first step in breaking the silence about these children, these future lawyers, engineers, teachers, doctors.They are here. They are here. We need to listen to their dreams and we need to act to make those dreams a reality.”