America’s undocumented future: An odyssey, a shutdown and a status quo

I’ve been reading Dan-El Padilla Peralta’s book, “Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League.” I met Peralta at a literary conference in Boulder, Colo., a few months ago, and his story documenting his undocumented travails so captivated me that I immediately bought his book.

I chose Mexico’s mountain-ringed Tepoztlan as the place where I would read Peralta’s memoir. I had an arsenal of a dozen Spanish words, and it seemed fitting, while in no way a comparison, that I would read of Peralta’s struggles as I navigated a foreign land.

Peralta accompanied his parents legally to the United States when he was 4 years old. His mother was pregnant with his brother Yando at the time. After Yando was born, the family decided to stay in the country after their legal visas lapsed. Soon after, Peralta’s father gave up the battle of living without papeles, or “papers,” and returned to Santo Domingo. Peralta’s mother, Maria Elena, decided to soldier on despite the fact that she had no job, no prospects and two young children to rear.

Yando, the only legal resident in the family, received help from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program — a sum of $60 in food stamps and $42.50 in cash. As Peralta puts it, “We ate because of Yando.”

When Peralta was 8, the family began living at a shelter in downtown Manhattan, where the young grade-schooler had access to the shelter’s library. One of the books he read at the shelter was “How People Lived in Ancient Greece and Rome,” which made young Peralta think about historical context in a way that was uncommon for someone so young. This early fascination with books is what catapulted Peralta out of his desperate surroundings and into a world of elite prep schools and, ultimately, Princeton and then Oxford.

Dan-El Padilla Peralta recounts his rise fro povery in his memoir, “Undocumented: A Dominican Boy’s Odyssey from a Homeless Shelter to the Ivy League.” (Courtesy photo)

Peralta’s story has been much written about for several years now. The Wall Street Journal first came out with his story a few months before Peralta gave the salutatorian address in Latin at his Princeton commencement in 2006. But it is striking to note that the needle has not moved from the immigration rhetoric when Peralta first confronted it in the early 2000s to today, 15 years later.

“Don’t give those illegal aliens amnesty! They’ve invaded the country. If they’re breaking the law to get here, they don’t belong here. They take away jobs that belong to good, hardworking Americans. Deport them …”

Peralta recalled hearing these words in 2003, when there had been discussions of a potential bipartisan agreement after the DREAM Act had failed in Congress the previous year.

And today, we have the likes of author and political commentator Mark Steyn, who declared, as though it is a patent falsehood, “Nevertheless, in the eyes of the American people, and certainly their media, a Dreamer is a class valedictorian about to sign up for a tour in Afghanistan. So good luck to any Republican legislator minded to argue against that. Thus the power of a single word [Dreamers] to frame the issue: ‘Illegal aliens’ are lawbreakers who should face the consequences.”

The thing that Steyn conveniently omits from his diatribe is that Dreamers have faced the consequences over and over again — and it doesn’t ever stop.

As I write this, the GOP has just pledged to participate in an immigration debate to address the fate of undocumented immigrants in order to end the three-day government shutdown. There are no guarantees, of course. It’s just another debate. Another stop-gap arrangement until we confront the next ugly impasse, while the immigration enforcements in our cities continue to escalate.

A Reuters report indicated that the year 2017 had more immigration arrests than the previous year. Between Jan. 20 and Sept. 30, 2017, there were 111,000 people arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). According to Thomas Homan, acting director of ICE, 8 percent of those were “collateral arrests,” arrests of people not the primary focus of the agency. Notably, most of these arrests were made in sanctuary cities.

Two hundred twenty-six thousand were deported from the country in 2017, down 6 percent from the previous year. The explanation for fewer deportations points to fewer border crossings, because of White House rhetoric and politics, as well as an increasing backlog in immigration courts. San Francisco has 49,998 cases pending at the moment.

California officially became a sanctuary state this year, leading Homan to issue a disquieting warning to “hang on tight” as he plans to send more ICE agents to cities like San Francisco. “There’s no sanctuary from federal law enforcement,” he threatened.

As we wait and hope for better outcomes, I leave you with Peralta’s powerful words: “How eager we are to contribute to American society: to lend our hands and our feet to its economy, our minds to its intellectual production; to expand its horizons of inclusivity and diversity; to enrich its democratic discourse. Yet every single day, the ambitions and aptitudes of the undocumented millions are trivialized and marginalized by an immigration policy lacking in rationality or justice.”

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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