Our Family's Friends, the Illegals

In an America quietly divided by class as much as by race, our white, middle-class family in suburban Highland Park, IL, is an anomaly: our daughter has been friends for years with kids whose parents are illegal immigrants. If more Americans shared our experience, perhaps the Republicans would not have succeeded in crushing these kids' hopes as they filibustered the DREAM Act to death a few days ago.

To start with, forget the stereotypes. Our daughter, a college senior, has been friends with James (not his real name) and Carla (her real name, for reasons that will become clear) since 9th grade.

I'm going to give you a link in a moment that let's you see and hear Carla tell her own story. But first let me note that an even bigger divide in America than class may be values. After all, the Palin family has plenty of money, but even Barbara Bush shudders at the prospect of them moving into her old neighborhood on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Yet one reason we like James and Carla so much is precisely because of shared values. These are old-fashioned "nice" kids, unfailingly polite, smart, modest and ferociously dedicated to getting a good education.

Here's where the stereotypes enter. James is Hispanic. His mom cleans homes, while his dad works at a florist. But they're from Colombia, not Mexico, and in Colombia they held solidly middle-class jobs as pharmacists. I imagine that can be a tough occupation in a nation which endured warring drug cartels. They made their way here when James was 12.

Carla was only five when her parents came from the Philippines. There, both her parents worked as managers for a world-famous luxury hotel chain. Today, her mom is a private cook for a rich family, and her dad works in construction.

As another blogger wrote on this site: "Many of the children who come to this country without proper documentation come for the same reason people have always come to the United States and for the same reasons Jesus fled to Egypt -- to escape poverty or physical danger (or both) and to seek better opportunities for themselves and their children. But it seems this Congress would sooner deport children in the name of securing our borders than give them a chance to contribute more effectively to the U.S. economy and a chance at the American Dream."

The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act would have given kids like James and Carla a path to legal residency by either going to college or enlisting in the military. Despite not being able to get a driver's license (try getting onto an airplane, much less driving, without that kind of ID), despite not getting any financial aid and despite constant fear of discovery, James and Carla have, in fact, both gone to college and flourished there.

More to the point, despite the risks involved, Carla has gone public with her illegal status for the first time. We, like other friends, had not known. What's it like to be smart, ambitious, sensitive and perpetually scared? What does it do to your physical and mental health? With Carla's permission, I'm asking you to please click here to watch her describe her life in a very short video.

If the name of our suburb sounds familiar in this context, it may be because the decision by our school board last May to cancel the trip of a girl's basketball team to Arizona after the passage of its controversial immigration law drew national attention. Fox News conservatives and some parents pooh-poohed the district's explanation that it wanted "to ensure that all of our students had the opportunity to be included and be safe and be able to enjoy the experience."

The school district chose not to fight back in the media for the simple reason that the honest reply - you may see only the affluent kids, but we know that kids like James and Carla are also an integral part of our student family - could have drawn unwanted law enforcement attention. So the school board hunkered down and said nothing beyond its written statement.

If the kids walking home from our high school pass our house and keep on going for about ten to fifteen minutes, they'll come to the residence of Sen. Mark Kirk. Illinois' Democratic senator, Richard Durbin, sponsored the DREAM Act. However, our new Republican senator, a man who has promoted his good relations with the local Mexican community, voted for the filibuster that killed it.

Last week, Carla traveled to Washington with others like her "coming out of the shadows" with the Immigrant Youth Justice League in an attempt to see Sen. Kirk and win his support. It was a courageous but unsuccessful move. To Kirk, Carla remained invisible, just like James and his family or all the other kids who share the values, hopes and dreams of my children and yours, but who we've condemned to live as frightened strangers in a nightmare that does not end.