The Declaration of Independence, which we celebrate with barbecues and fireworks this week, was written by immigrants and the sons of immigrants. Exactly 236 years later, the descendants of the signatories to that treasonous writ are still struggling with what it means to be a nation based neither on tribe nor creed, but on a desire.
Most of us who call ourselves Americans do so because somebody in our past wanted to be an American. And they took some pretty bold steps to make that dream happen. They crossed oceans and deserts and left families and homelands, farms and lovers behind to wait. They fought under the banner of the stars and stripes and labored in the development of a new country’s infrastructure, all in the hope of winning a place in a new world, not as subjects, but as citizens. Some did it with benefit of legal papers, many others came hoping that no one would ask.
When 35-year-old Aly Wane sat in All Saints Catholic Church in Syracuse on June 25 and announced that he was going public about living in our midst without the benefit of immigration papers, he was in good company. Wane stepped out of the anonymity of the undocumented life last week to ask us to begin a conversation about developing a new immigration policy. Friends and supporters of the 35-year-old Senegalese-born man listened as Wane, in his gentle cadence, told of his journey.
The son of a diplomat, he lived in at least five countries before taking up residence here in Syracuse. He has not even heard from the remnants of his Senegalese family in more than a quarter-century, and his tongue is losing its facility with French, the language of his long-deceased father. His mother brought him to the United States in 1985 when she worked as a diplomat at the United Nations in New York City. She later died in Zimbabwe, leaving him orphaned and undocumented.
Through the kindness of neighbors and friends he obtained an education at Le Moyne College, a debt he has repaid through years of working with homeless men at Unity Acres and organizing with the Syracuse Peace Council. To Wane, who came here legally and has lived his entire adult life here, America is home. Syracuse is home.
As he spoke out, the Supreme Court was about to issue its split decision on Arizona’s attempt to take immigration law into its own hands. Two weeks earlier President Obama had halted deportations of young immigrants eligible under the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act. The DREAM Act, which the Senate refused to pass in 2010, would have paved the way for citizenship for immigrants who were brought here as children, provided they jump over a number of hurdles. Curiously, the DREAM Act lobby was led by Hewlett-Packard and some of our most prestigious universities.
The DREAM Act was an attempt by Congress to pick some of the lowest-hanging fruit on the immigration debate tree. Its goal was simple and appealing: If a young person was brought here by a parent without immigration status, and has lived a productive, law-abiding life, he or she shouldn’t be uprooted and sent back to a place that is no longer their home.
DREAM Act beneficiaries are politically more appealing than the standard undocumented alien; like Aly they were just kids when they crossed the border to get here. Since he is 35, however, he does not qualify for the Obama exemption and is still at risk of deportation.
Aly Wane’s tortured story challenges the stereotypes that many of us bring to the immigration debate. He asks us not to fear the immigrant.
Now out in the open, he says he does not know all the answers, but he wants us to have a conversation based on certain truths. When the DREAM Act failed to pass Congress, says Wane, he and others felt a deep despair. He felt a need to counter that situation with his own statement: “Those of us who are undocumented decided that we have to take matters into our own hands.”
He finds hope in the Obama administration’s decision to suspend deportation of young immigrants who would otherwise be subject to deportation. Until this year, Obama had presided over the largest scale deportation of undocumented immigrants in any two-year period of our history—more than 800,000 people.
We have always had a love-hate relationship with the immigrant. We needed Chinese laborers to build the railroads, we needed Irish laborers to dig the canal, the way we need Central American farm workers to harvest our onions and milk our cows and, increasingly, to cut the lawns outside homes while youngsters play video games on the other side of the wall.
In recent years we have learned that we can’t even run our own State Fair without the help of immigrant workers, some of them legal, some of them, well—it’s better not to ask. We need the fried dough.
We cling to laws that all sides acknowledge no longer work, but our political process is so polarized we are unable to change them. Wane hopes a ripple of change will emanate from gestures like his.
He speaks of a recurring nightmare he had over a period of years. In the dream he is standing in an immigration office begging an official for his citizenship. “I’m a good person,” he recalls pleading. “I’m an American . . .” The official behind the desk says nothing. The official does not even have a face. “All I could see was a suit and tie.”
Now the debate, at least in our town, has a human face.
Read Ed Griffin-Nolan’s award-winning commentary in the Syracuse New Times.
You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.