Last year when four students walked from Miami to Washington to push for passage of the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented students in this country, their activism didn’t convince Congress to approve the act. But they did get the attention of Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for the Washington Post.
Three of the four students who made the walk were undocumented and they risked deportation by making that fact public.
“Their courage inspired me,” Vargas wrote in a personal essay published in The New York Times last week. This is one of those pieces of journalism that is so well written that I decided not to read it online at work, but rather printed it out so I could read it in a comfortable chair at home, and reflect on it.
It turns out that Vargas, sent at age 12 from his native Philippines to live with his grandparents in Mountain View, Calif., is undocumented, too. It’s a secret he’s hidden from his employers for more than a decade. His essay describes the psychological impact of feeling American but not officially being American. He confesses how after he learned at age16 that he was undocumented, he broke the law by using false papers, even though he felt guilty about it.
Vargas relays how some educators, starting in high school, became members of what he calls the modern-day “underground railroad” that has helped him on his journey to success. For example, Rich Fischer, the superintendent of California’s Mountain Lake-Los Altos High School District, consulted with lawyers after Vargas told him about his immigration “problem.” He and others connected Vargas with a fund that would cover his college education at San Francisco State University.
While educators don’t ask students about their immigration status during the enrollment process (though that may change in Alabama if a new law requiring schools to determine immigration status isn’t blocked in federal court), they often become aware of students who are undocumented. Educators make a choice whether to get involved actively in assisting the student on immigration matters or take a hands-off approach. Read the comments posted on Vargas’ essay and you’ll get a sense for how some Americans are sympathetic and others aren’t to the undocumented youths in this country.
For educators who want to get involved in helping undocumented students, a report published by the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth and Kids in Need of Defense gives advice on how they can let youths know that some of their options for pursuing legal status in this country run out after they are 18.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Learning the Language blog.