I am a Cuban refugee who arrived in the United States at the age of 11, shortly after the Castro revolution. My parents sacrificed everything to flee a regime they wanted no part of, whose economics and ideology they distrusted. America welcomed us with open arms.
Because of the machinations of Cold War politics, we were given asylum, green cards and a path to citizenship. My parents were not educated people – my father was an auto mechanic and my mother a homemaker – but they used every possible means to impress upon my sister and me the importance of education to get ahead in our new homeland.
My father would make his point by holding his hands up in front of me. The hands of a mechanic who has worked on engines for more than 40 years have a very distinctive look. Forty years of getting burned on hot engines, cut with fan belts, soaked in grease and gasoline, and being exposed to countless harsh conditions turned my father’s hands into vivid reminders that he was a man who did hard labor. He would say, “Look, Gera, look at my hands. I want you to get an education so that when you’re my age your hands don’t look like mine.”
I did attain a college education. In fact, I became an academic and in 2000 reached the pinnacle of my academic career. I was named dean of the School of Education at Indiana University, one of America’s premier educational institutions. Along the way I made many contributions to my profession and society. Among them, as a college student, the first in my family, I founded Boost Alcohol Consciousness Concerning the Health of University Students (BACCHUS), which became America’s leading collegiate organization for preventing alcohol abuse. When I left the organization in 1986 to pursue other academic interests, I received a letter from then-president Ronald Reagan that in part read, “Nancy and I are proud of the work you have done to help make a safe and healthy tomorrow for our nation’s young people. That’s a fine contribution to your adopted homeland.”
I sat in my office and read and reread President Reagan’s words: “your adopted homeland.” The president of the United States. I was overwhelmed. The president — the man in the White House — wrote those words. His words confirmed that for poor people and immigrants like me, education was the key to success. Without a college education, I could never have accomplished what I’d done.
President Reagan inspired me to do for other young people what the United States had done for me. Speaking to a special assembly for Hispanic and Latino high school students in Frankfort, Indiana, I shared my immigrant’s story and my struggles to learn the language in American schools. The students listened intently. I stressed the importance of studying hard and preparing for college. When I finished, a student remained in her seat crying. I asked her “What’s the matter, why are you crying?”
She said, “Because everything you said is true.” She continued, “I want to go to college, and I know it’s important, but I can’t.” I asked her why. She replied, “Because I’m undocumented. I’m afraid that if I apply to college immigration will come to take my parents away.”
I was dumbfounded. Nothing I could say would have alleviated that girl’s fears of losing her parents because of something she might do. It was hard to leave that school, knowing a motivated and talented student would be denied an education and thus the opportunity to achieve the American dream.
The plight of immigrants, especially Hispanic and Latino immigrants, is one of our nation’s greatest tragedies. For many years, the U.S. Congress tried but failed to pass various versions of the DREAM Act — Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors — designed to protect from deportation young immigrants brought to the country illegally by their parents. Frustrated by Congress’s failures, in 2012 then president Barack Obama signed an executive order creating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. DACA allowed illegal immigrants who entered the country as minors, had not committed serious crimes, and met certain other conditions to receive a renewable two-year permit deferring them from deportation and making them eligible for work permits. Nearly 800,000 so-called “Dreamers” signed-up for the program. But on September 5, 2017, President Donald Trump ordered an end to the program and gave Congress a six-month deadline to pass legislation to come up with a replacement.
Our nation is now in danger of abandoning DACA and failing yet again to achieve comprehensive immigration reform. I am pained by the thought that, if that happens, in the future no American president would be able to write a Dreamer commending him or her for their “fine contribution to your adopted homeland.” That would be America’s loss.