Allan Gerson practices international law in Washington.
Once I was a "dreamer."
To be sure, in time I became a member of the American establishment, at least at a middling level. During the Reagan administration, I served as senior counselor to the U.S. delegation to the United Nations, and later I was a deputy assistant attorney general in the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel.
But not so long before that, I was an illegal immigrant. I was little different from those who bear the designation dreamer today, the almost 700,000 who soon may once again be subject to deportation simply for coming into this country on their parents' coattails as children.
For me, it began as a 5-year-old aboard the USS Pershing in December 1950 as it carried Holocaust survivors and their kin into New York Harbor. My parents had a visa for admission into the United States that was issued in the displaced-persons camp in Germany where they had found shelter under U.S. and U.N. auspices after the war. Trouble was, the visa wasn't their own. It belonged to a family that had obtained it but then decided to immigrate elsewhere instead.
I was identified as a different person who was a year older than I was. My parents also had taken on false identities. Had they not done so, they would have been turned away from the United States — they had no sponsors, and the entry quota was severe. But through subterfuge, they entered as illegal immigrants. I was barely conscious of this fact growing up, but I knew enough to realize something was askew.
I remember my parents taking me, when I was 11 or 12, to Klein's department store in Manhattan. As we exited the store, a man standing with a cart of frankfurters and sauerkraut yelled to my father using a name I did not recognize. It was our former name. My father's face turned white as he shunted me aside, afraid some immigration agent might overhear the conversation. My parents were always afraid.
Then, when I was about 13, my father decided he'd had enough of living under a false identity. With the help of an able immigration lawyer, he went to court and got a sympathetic judge to allow us to obtain U.S. citizenship under our original names.
We were fortunate. It didn't have to turn out that way. The judge could have ordered our deportation. Or my parents could have balked at taking the risk of deportation and continued to conceal their true identities.
Had they followed that path, I today, at 72, would be subject to deportation along with the hundreds of thousands of dreamers less than half my age. Immigration law has no statute of limitations. Nor does it accord elementary due-process rights that pertain in any criminal trial. Deportation is treated as less than punishment.
But of course deportation is terribly punitive, especially for the young who have known no home other than the United States and did nothing worse than hold on to their parents' hands. And even if not deported, today's dreamers could still face severe deprivation, including limits on their ability to work and to obtain funding for college.
That is why I identify with the dreamers of today, who stand to be deprived of life as they know it, shipped off to some land they hardly recognize.
But for dint of circumstance, I might be in their boots.