The ‘Elephant in the Room’

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You don’t appreciate what you have until you meet the have-nots. That’s how I felt Thursday when I visited a Lake Street shopping complex known for its bustling Latino businesses. In addition to seeking a comment for a story about immigration raids during the 2010 census, I grabbed a burrito while I looked for someone to talk to me.

Upwards of a dozen people turned me down. I kept thinking that although I looked different from most everyone, I hardly fit the profile of a federal agent. (I guess I broke a cardinal rule for journalists trying to “infiltrate” close-knit communities, which is to bring “one of their own” with them. I certainly have been on both sides of that scenario.)

But I realized that I was woefully unprepared for venturing into unknown territory. It took me more than an hour before I finally persuaded a congenial young man from Mexico, who is an undocumented immigrant, to talk to me. In exchange, I offered him anonymity as well a sworn oath to God that I was not an informant.

Deal done. He gave me some passionate comments for my story, which also made me think on my way home.

Eduardo, it turned out, came to the United States with his family when he was 6 years old. At 19, you would mistake him for 29. Stout and articulate, he told me he graduated from high school with an eye-popping 3.9 GPA. His parents speak no English, but you wouldn’t get a hint of that from his Midwestern accent.

Eduardo said his college hopes were dashed because of meager resources and a lack of legal papers. Some of his friends, he tells me, made it to the Ivy League — a fact “that I’m coming to terms with bitterly,” he said.

Nearly half of the 12 million undocumented immigrants are like Eduardo. They are children who didn’t choose to come here, and can’t go back to their native country simply because they have grown up Americans.

“If I had grown up in [Mexico,] I would probably go to medical school or engineering,” said Eduardo.

Hope on the way

Hope is on the way for kids like him. Before adjourning for summer recess, the U.S. Senate was considering a bill that would create a path of citizenship for the children of the undocumented immigrants who went to high school in this country. It’s almost a replica of what the Minnesota Legislature tried to do with the Dream Act. (Under the threat of a veto by Gov. Tim Pawlenty, lawmakers scrubbed the bill.)

Eduardo is waiting that Senate bill eagerly, though he said he has been disappointed so many times.

“The strange thing is that the Congress knows about the elephant in the room — the kids of undocumented immigration,” he said. “But whenever they try to do something about it, other elephants pop up. And then, Congress just dumps us.”

That’s when I realized that in coming here as a legal immigrant, I could really count myself as one of the haves.