The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gambling with the soul of America

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Vivek Wadhwa is Vice President of Innovation and Research at Singularity University and Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University. His other academic appointments include Duke and Emory Universities as well as past appointments at Harvard and the University of California Berkeley. This piece reflects his opinion.

I used to believe that clearing up the skilled-immigrant backlog and creating a startup visa should be Congress’s top legislative priorities. This is what I focused on in my book, “Immigrant Exodus”. If you had told me a documentary could shift my mindset, I would have said you were crazy. That was before I watched “Documented” – a film that made me realize there is a piece of legislation even more desperately in need of passage: the DREAM Act.

There are an estimated 1.8 million children in the U.S. who could be classified as “illegal aliens”, according to the Immigration Policy Center. They didn’t knowingly break any laws. Their parents brought them to this country to give them a better future. These “DREAMers” as they are called, grew up as Americans, believing they were entitled to the same rights and freedoms as their friends. But, because they don’t have the proper paperwork, they are forced to live in the shadows of society—as second-class human beings with limits on where they can work and study, and what they can do. Until recently, they would also fear being rounded up in the middle of the night to be deported to a land that they don’t even remember.

This is unconscionable in a country that prides itself on being a champion of human rights.

This reality was brought to life for me in the film by Jose Antonio Vargas, a Filipino immigrant brought to this country when he was twelve years old. Vargas studied at San Francisco State University and became a journalist. He shared a Pulitzer Prize for a story he wrote while working at The Washington Post in 2007, and he made headlines two years ago by revealing in a New York Times Magazine article that he is an undocumented immigrant.

In “Documented,” Vargas tells of how he didn’t know that he was illegal until he was 16, when he went to apply for a driver’s license. He lived, from that point on, in constant fear of being deported. At every turn, through his days at school and his rise through the ranks of journalism, he would have to lie about his status.  Most troublesome was the way he was cut off from his mother, who sent him away to live with his grandparents in America. He couldn’t travel back to the Philippines and she couldn’t get a visa to travel to America. So, for over 20 years, they drifted apart. Vargas became conflicted and confused. The most touching scene in the film was when his mother cried in her kitchen in Manila lamenting that her son wouldn’t even accept her as a friend on Facebook.

It isn’t that I haven’t read about the plight of the undocumented or don’t know any DREAMers. I know several people who have overstayed their visas or who were brought illegally to the United States as children. I have always been sympathetic to their cause. But Vargas’s story changed me, giving me clearer window on the life of an illegal immigrant. His story and the manner in which it is told makes you better understand their emotions and hardships.

I hope all of our political leaders watch this film. They need to understand that skilled immigration is an economic issue that is directly tied to the health of our economy. But this is about more than the economy: providing basic human rights to the millions of undocumented children who live in the shadows of U.S. society is something we must do to heal the soul of this nation.

Comprehensive immigration reform is caught in the quagmire of partisan politics. At best, the odds are 50-50 that any legislation will pass. It is bad enough that we are gambling with the economic future of this country. Let’s not gamble with the lives of its DREAMers. Congress should approve the DREAM Act as a down payment. This can’t wait.