March 16, 2012

For 11 years since arriving from Colombia, the Acuña family has lived and worked in this country as productive, law-abiding citizens. Then this month, having been denied the political asylum they sought in the United States, they were yanked from their Germantown home and locked up in a detention center on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Though they are now free, having been granted a one-year reprieve from deportation, their story raises serious questions about our values: Having done no harm to the community in which they sought to be a part, they face the prospect of life-shattering punishment. Why?

I know Jorge Steven Acuña, the son of Jorge and Blanca Acuña, from his years at Northwest High School, where I am a teacher and soccer coach. I encounter many students who do not apply themselves, who show little or no effort, and who squander the vast opportunities afforded them by this country. Jorge was not one of those. He was an honors student, graduating with a grade-point average of 3.8, and took part in multiple extracurricular activities, including helping Northwest win its first division championship for soccer. He was never in trouble. Above all, Jorge was a positive role model for all students, regardless of age or race. He and his family learned English and assimilated into American culture. They worked for the same dreams my own ancestors pursued when they arrived in America generations ago.

And Jorge has continued to pursue his dreams through education. He is a shining example of the need for a federal Dream Act, which would offer such promising young people brought to the United States as children a chance to become citizens, as well as the state version, which would help make higher education affordable to them. Jorge applied for and paid to attend Montgomery College, where he is set to graduate early. His goal is a career in medicine — not in Colombia but in the United States. He wants to dedicate his life to helping people in his adopted home, the country that gave him so much, the country that may yet take everything away. If he succeeds, how many Americans will Jorge help? If he is sent back to Colombia, we will never know.

Should we tell Jorge, sorry, if only your grandparents had come to the United States instead of your parents, we would love to have you? How does that make sense? How is that just?

In many ways, the Acuñas seem more “American” than many who were born here. Self-improvement and an excellent work ethic are values Americans hold dear, and they are values the Acuñas have exhibited for more than a decade. How many natural-born citizens leech off the community and lack the ambition and determination of Jorge and his family? It is an unfathomable shame that birthplace holds more importance to our government than what people actually do and mean to our society. We gain nothing by sending such people away.