A group of college students at the University of Texas at Austin, named the Young Conservatives of Texas, had planned to sponsor a “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Game” on campus with the goal of stimulating discussion about the controversial topic of immigration in the United States. The “game” entails a few students wandering around the campus wearing signs that read “illegal immigrant” and then other students, who would “catch” them, would take them to a recruiting table for the Young Conservatives and receive $25 gift certificates.
The university reacted by stating that this event was “completely out of line with the values of this university” and those who exercise their freedom of speech in this way would be seen as a “detriment to others.” The university even threatened to expel any student who would take part in such activity. At the last minute the conservative group of students cancelled the event, because they feared retaliation from the university and worried that the game would “create a safety issue for their volunteers.”
The polarizing issue underlying this cruel “game” was the recent implementation of the Texas DREAM Act that allows students, who were brought to the United States without documentation as children, to pay in-state tuition at public universities and to be eligible for state aid for their education. This move by the State of Texas is seen by many as an indication of the possible passage of the Federal DREAM Act that would provide students without papers with a path to citizenship. Currently in the United States there are between 1 million and 2 million children under 18 years of age who are undocumented.
Immigration reform is fraught with much confusion and great misunderstanding. People on both sides of the issue are passionate and fervent about their respective position. Historically, however, we as Americans visualize the Statue of Liberty, a long-established American symbol, expressing how the United States was built firmly on the strength of immigrants. Current studies estimate there are 11 million to 12 million immigrants without papers in the United States, or about 4 percent of the U.S. population.
The “game” in this critical and contentious issue is at least distasteful and racist. The very name of it is offensive. Recently, the Associated Press and USA Today have dropped the term “illegal immigrant” from their reporting. Many Hispanics and immigrants find the name odious because it criminalizes and stigmatizes people rather than their actions. Words such as “undocumented” and “unauthorized” are currently used to describe those without papers.
The “game” trivializes the issue to be debated and mocks the undocumented as it takes away the dignity of persons without papers. It also disrespects and dehumanizes them, making them seem like criminals who are chased for a bounty or reward. The “game” fosters the harsh exclusion of these young people, who through no fault of their own are here and are currently unauthorized. In short, it makes them feel unwelcomed at the university and even in the United States. The university administration took a strong stand against the student run “game” as it responded how the conservative group was “willfully ignoring the honor code and contributing to the degradation of our campus culture.”
The point of the “game” was to expose hundreds of thousands of undocumented children, who are lost in an underground economy in this country. Brought here by parents without papers, they have grown up in American neighborhoods, attended American schools and dress and speak like typical American teenagers. However, as they approach adulthood, most find their legal status a barrier to jobs and education. In fact, their lack of documentation puts them at risk for deportation. If deported, these children would be lost since the dominant language for them is English and they are essentially Americans being raised here.
These children are lost in the shadows. They have nowhere to turn and they are seen as being without a country. In only a few states like California, New Mexico and Texas can students without papers qualify for in-state college tuition and state loans.
About a year ago these undocumented children were allowed to apply for deferred action status that frees them from deportation and grants them a work visa for two years. This concession is some sort of progress in tackling the problem of immigration, but it does not address the all-important issue of education for the undocumented.
Education is the key for any immigrant group to become an integral and essential part of this nation. Measures to afford undocumented immigrants equal opportunities of America’s fervent promises are often met with great opposition. Opponents of these measures do not believe that tax dollars should go to subsidizing the education of undocumented immigrants.
Undocumented or not, they are participating members of our communities and nation and should be given the chance to pursue a good education. Not only is education a fundamental human right, but a way for advancement. As Catholics by right of our birth and baptism we are all seen as unique and with great dignity.
For example, one of my parishioners is a young woman in 12th grade with no papers. She was carried across the border as a baby. This young person is enrolled in two Advanced Placement courses — calculus and advanced biology — and is ranked fifth or sixth in her graduating class. Without aid it would not be possible for her to attend college even though she has a very high GPA and high SAT scores. She still continues to study hard even though she knows it will take a miracle for her to attend college.
Even with a dearth of women in the fields of mathematics and science, she would not be considered a viable candidate for admission with financial aid. Despite this dilemma, she dreams of dedicating her gifts and talents to the only country she knows, but cannot do so because of her legal status.
Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando addresses the issue by describing how these “undocumented persons talk like Americans, they think like Americans. We ought to let them dream like Americans.”
The dream he is referring to is not just the one dreamt by the undocumented, but also the dream of Americans to continue to have a great country with wonderful opportunities for all.
Those opposed to the U.S. Bishops’ initiative to promote education and a road to citizenship for the undocumented via the DREAM Act argue that amnesty to those “lawbreakers,” although children, would create a backdoor attempt to legalize those undocumented people in this country. Some even say that this amnesty disguised as an educational plan would encourage illegal behavior and force Americans to compete with undocumented residents for college admission and scholarships.
But the changes in our immigration program, on the contrary, would reward hard work, good moral character, education and service to this country — all American ideals.
John Henry Cardinal Newman once wrote the idea of a university is that “it should impart knowledge and truth which have a tendency to refine the mind and give it a natural disposition to abhor the excesses and enormities of evil.” A university should form the minds of students that respect the dignity and worth of all people. Charity and generosity in exchanging knowledge should be prevalent on any college campus, especially Catholic ones, not vicious attacks on others.
What is ironic about the University of Texas case is that the response from the student group defines the creators of the game as victims persecuted by the university.
The response by the university should be applauded as they protected the human rights and dignity of all. Immigration reform is crucial and critical at this time in our country. We have a choice to ensure that these students without papers fulfill their promise by serving our nation or separate them from their families and communities and return them heartlessly to nations they do not know. Immigration reform should not be treated as a mindless game that victimizes those who work, study and strive to become good citizens of this country.
The United States is a land of opportunity, family values and compassion. We have always given immigrants the opportunity to work hard and to be successful, which is beneficial to our nation. We have also placed a high premium on the family unit. And we have refused to punish the innocent among us. As Archbishop José Gomez of Los Angeles hopes, “With immigration reform, we can welcome a new generation of Americans who will one day become leaders of our nation. It is the right thing to do, for them and for our nation.”
Father Augustus Puleo is pastor of St. Patrick Parish, Norristown.