A Threshold of Belonging
To address the socioeconomic and develop- mental challenges faced by mixed-status children, U.S. policymakers must change the immigration laws that create such pre- carious circumstances. Repeated failures in
Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform
show this is no easy task—and how divorced from reality the policy and public debate remain. Even as the
flows of unauthorized immigration are at a standstill,
Americans by a large majority ( 72 percent) believe that
the federal government is not doing enough to prevent
unauthorized immigration. 8
Although polls indicate opinion is split on issues
such as building more fences on the border with Mexico ( 50 percent support it), large margins agree that the
U.S. should be doing more to fine employers who hire
unauthorized immigrants ( 64 percent) and put in more
border patrol agents ( 81 percent). 9 The U.S. has neither
the infrastructure nor the financial capacity to deport
en masse 11 million unauthorized migrants, and in the
process split up millions of families. The “
attrition-through-enforcement” approach is not generating massive “self-deportations,” but rather pushing immigrants
out of certain cities and states and into others.
At the same time, U.S. citizens sense that the status
quo is not acceptable. A 2010 CNN poll found that 81 percent of Americans support the idea of “creating a program
that would allow illegal immigrants already living in
the U. S. for a number of years to apply for permission to
remain permanently if they have a job and pay taxes.” 10
How do we get beyond the impasse? Is there a way
out of the shadows for today’s unauthorized immigrants
and their children? The most sensible, humane and realistic path for ward is based on a clear set of principles
establishing a “threshold of belonging” and “shared fate.”
Those principles are not only identifiable and measure-able, they are also fundamental to a theory of citizenship.
First, unauthorized immigrants would have to pass a
“threshold of belonging.” Have they been de facto, if not
de jure, members in good standing of the communities
where they are settled? Proof of this could include a history of steady work, evidence of good moral character
and standing in the community—perhaps in the form
of affidavits from community leaders such as a supervisor, teacher or religious leader. Do their relatives, including children, have roots in the community—in schools,
in places of worship and in the job market?
Setting a test for citizenship based on an individu-
MARCELO M. SUÁREZ-OROZCO The Dream Deferred
al’s contribution to his or her community, expressed
through a solid work history, participation in local institutions, paying taxes, a crime-free record, and even
evidence of interest in learning the language and history of the U.S., would provide de facto evidence that
such an individual has passed the “belonging threshold.”
But in the current culture of gridlock in Washington, it
is (sadly) unrealistic to think that legislation incorporating these concepts is possible today. What, then, can be
done immediately? Here, the lowest-hanging fruit is applying these same standards for the children currently
trapped in the policy deadlock.
Regularizing the status of over a million youth and
young adults who have continuously lived in the U.S.
through childhood, earned a high school diploma or a
GED, and go on to college or military service, is smart
policy. The bipartisan Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act would give some
360,000 unauthorized high school graduates a legal pathway to work and attend college, and could generate incentives for over 700,000 youngsters bet ween ages 5 and
17 to finish high school and pursue secondary education.
These youths cannot be held responsible for breaking the law at the border. They have benefited from tax-payer-subsidized public education and have played by
the rules. They have certainly passed the “belonging
threshold.” Yet today they can neither work nor take
advantage of a full range of educational opportunities
beyond high school. It’s bad for them and bad for the
country. We have invested heavily in these youth, and
the U.S. will depend on them to fill the ranks of our labor force when they reach adulthood.
Taking the long view, even without any further migration, the U.S. is facing the greatest demographic transformation in a century. The children of immigrants now
constitute the fastest growing sector of the population.
They are our future scientists, nurses, businesspeople,
and teachers. It is too late for Arizona, Georgia and Alabama. But in other states we need to decide whether
we want to harness the energies of all new young Americans or waste the talents of a generation. The choice
should be obvious.
Marcelo M. Suárez-Orozco is the Courtney Sale Ross
University Professor of Globalization and Education
at the Steinhardt School at New York University.
FOR SOURCE CI TATIONS AND A VIDEO INTERVIEW WI TH THE AUTHOR SEE:
147 Americas Quarterly SPRING 2012