ImmigrationI used to believe that clearing up the skilled-immigrant backlog and creating a startup visa should be Congress’s top legislative priorities. This is what I focused on in my book, “Immigrant Exodus”. If you had told me a documentary could shift my mindset, I would have said you were crazy. That was before I watched “Documented” – a film that made me realize there is a piece of legislation even more desperately in need of passage: the DREAM Act.

There are an estimated 1.8 million children in the U.S. who could be classified as “illegal aliens”, according to the Immigration Policy Center. They didn’t knowingly break any laws. Their parents brought them to this country to give them a better future. These “DREAMers” as they are called, grew up as Americans, believing they were entitled to the same rights and freedoms as their friends. But, because they don’t have the proper paperwork, they are forced to live in the shadows of society—as second-class human beings with limits on where they can work and study, and what they can do. Until recently, they would also fear being rounded up in the middle of the night to be deported to a land that they don’t even remember.

This is unconscionable in a country that prides itself on being a champion of human rights.

This reality was brought to life for me in the film by Jose Antonio Vargas, a Filipino immigrant brought to this country when he was twelve years old. Vargas studied at San Francisco State University and became a journalist. He shared a Pulitzer Prize for a story he wrote while working at The Washington Post in 2007, and he made headlines two years ago by revealing in a New York Times Magazine article that he is an undocumented immigrant.

In “Documented,” Vargas tells of how he didn’t know that he was illegal until he was 16, when he went to apply for a driver’s license. He lived, from that point on, in constant fear of being deported. At every turn, through his days at school and his rise through the ranks of journalism, he would have to lie about his status.  Most troublesome was the way he was cut off from his mother, who sent him away to live with his grandparents in America. He couldn’t travel back to the Philippines and she couldn’t get a visa to travel to America. So, for over 20 years, they drifted apart. Vargas became conflicted and confused. The most touching scene in the film was when his mother cried in her kitchen in Manila lamenting that her son wouldn’t even accept her as a friend on Facebook.

It isn’t that I haven’t read about the plight of the undocumented or don’t know any DREAMers. I know several people who have overstayed their visas or who were brought illegally to the United States as children. I have always been sympathetic to their cause. But Vargas’s story changed me, giving me clearer window on the life of an illegal immigrant. His story and the manner in which it is told makes you better understand their emotions and hardships.

I hope all of our political leaders watch this film. They need to understand that skilled immigration is an economic issue that is directly tied to the health of our economy. But this is about more than the economy: providing basic human rights to the millions of undocumented children who live in the shadows of U.S. society is something we must do to heal the soul of this nation.

Comprehensive immigration reform is caught in the quagmire of partisan politics. At best, the odds are 50-50 that any legislation will pass. It is bad enough that we are gambling with the economic future of this country. Let’s not gamble with the lives of its DREAMers. Congress should approve the DREAM Act as a down payment. This can’t wait.

© The Washington Post Company

Link to article on Washington Post’s website 

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  • sakky

    Mr. Wadhwa:

    I have no quarrel with the DREAM Act, which I agree is a matter of compassion and human rights.

    However, you continue to peddle the notion that, as you put it: “skilled immigration is an economic issue that is directly tied to the health of our economy” or that “…[W]e are gambling with the economic future of this country”- a notion that, frankly, has no clear supporting empirical evidence. As I’ve asked repeatedly, if you have such evidence, by all means, please present it. While I don’t disagree that certainly *some* immigrants provide economic benefits to the US, they have to be weighed against the costs inflicted by other immigrants, not only in terms of social services consumed, but also in terms of reduced incentives and standards of living for skilled Americans who are forced to endure greater job competition. Any pro-immigration argument that invokes economic benefits must therefore calculate the *net* benefits that such immigration provides – and those net benefits might well be negative.

    So, Mr. Wadhwa, if those net economic benefits of immigration turn out to indeed be negative, would you then stop supporting a policy of increased immigration? To be perfectly blunt, I suspect that you would not. Rather, I suspect that you would alternatively adopt the fallback position of positioning immigration as an issue privy to human rights, compassion, and geographical justice (e.g. the fundamental unfairness that certain talented people just happen to be born in impoverished lands while Americans reap the providential fortune of being born here.}

    And, honestly, that position is probably the most promising play you have. The discussion would then shift from empirical grounds – which does not clearly support a pro-immigration stance – to far more favorable moral and humanitarian grounds. You would then no longer have to appeal to the evidence (and risk empirical refutation), but rather, appeal to value judgments (for which no empirical refutation is possible). The argument could therefore be that the US should continue to admit more immigrants even if the benefits to the economy or the nation’s innovativeness are unclear – indeed even if it damages them – because doing so is a core value tenet of the American spirit. In the same way that most Americans (exceptions being Native Americans and descendents of slaves) are here only because the US provided immigration opportunities to their ancestors, it is only fair that the same opportunities be provided to foreigners today. And such immigration ought to be tolerated even if doing so damages the livelihoods of domestic workers today, just surely as the immigrant ancestors of today’s current Americans may well have damaged the livelihoods of the contemporaneous native-born Americans.

    But as long as you continue to insist that the empirical evidence (as opposed to a moral argument) is on your side, then I must continue to request that you present that evidence.