Tuesday, May 26, 2009

12. Today was a good morning...

So, it's been over a year since my last blog post! That's what having a kid will do for your spare time, I suppose. The following is a rough draft of a piece I've been asked to write up based on a presentation which I gave at a Board meeting for the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity. Please let me know what you think:

Today I woke up to the news that Sonia Sotomayor has been nominated to be the next Justice of the Supreme Court. If you watched five minutes of the news, then you already know the remarkable details of her background: Child of immigrants from Puerto Rico, raised by a single mother in a public housing project in the Bronx. She then went to Princeton on a scholarship, then law school in Yale. From there she started a remarkable legal career.

Also remarkable, of course, is the story of the man who had nominated her, President Barack Obama. If you haven’t heard the details of his life by now, you’ve probably been living under a rock. And regardless of your political standing, you have to acknowledge that it’s a remarkable story. Suffice to say, there are many parallels between his life and that of Sotomayor. So, what made possible their paths to power and success? There are certainly many things that contributed to their successes, but you can’t even begin to honestly to look at their stories without bringing up the huge role that education—and especially higher education—has had on their unlikely rise to prominence.

It’s no accident that education is one of the primary issue focuses for the Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity (MORE2). Education is what makes stories like Obama’s and Sotomayor’s possible, and we want more stories like that to happen in America. Clearly, education creates role models. Much has been written and discussed about what kind of impact the election of Obama would have on millions of young African-Americans. For generations, so many have often looked at the circumstances of their lives—and the realities of society—and decided that success just wasn’t going to happen for them. For too long, too many have just shrugged and said, “Hey, man, it’s still America, isn't it?” Similarly, I have seen so many of my Spanish-speaking clients bring in their children—some about the age of my son—and wondered how and if they will ever overcome the challenges they already face. Too often, I have found myself looking at a client’s child and thinking, “He’s already five miles behind where my son is starting right out of the blocks.” What kind of impact could the example of a Latina Supreme Court Justice have on my clients’ children?

I have a client named Gerardo who I’ve represented for several years on many different cases, including a large civil case against an out-of-state subcontractor who stiffed him and about 50 other immigrant workers for work done on the Great Wolf Lodge in KCK. We litigated for three years to obtain a decent judgment amount, and then another year to try and pierce the corporate veil of the now-defunct corporation which this subcontractor left behind before he started another corporation. That part of the case didn’t go our way, but over the course of those several years, I got to know Gerardo pretty well.

Gerardo has four children, the youngest which was born just a few months apart from my son. The first time I represented him on some minor traffic case several years ago, Gerardo told me that his oldest daughter, who was 10 at the time, had started saying that she wanted to be a lawyer when she grows up, because the family was always talking about how “El Abogado” was always helping them. Recently, this oldest daughter became a client of mine. She apparently hung out with the wrong people at school, and now has a juvenile felony and a few misdemeanor convictions to her name. And she has dropped out of high school, although working on her GED will be part of her probation. And, as I learned at my last court appearance with her, now she’s also pregnant. Obviously, all of this bothered me, and I wonder what happened between those times. At some point, between 10 and 17, she must have looked around her urban core neighborhood and school and concluded that becoming a lawyer just wasn’t possible. Why bust your tail if it’s never going to happen?

I also worried about what kind of example she was setting for her two younger siblings who are in school below her. I asked her about this, and to my surprise she said that they’re really good students, that they’re studying all the time and getting good grades. So what changed between her and her siblings? Maybe her siblings heard that there’s actually some hope, that there’s a reason to stay in school and work hard. I’d like to think part of it may have had to do with the passage a few years ago of the Kansas In-State Tuition Act, which says, look, children of undocumented immigrants who were brought over when you were too young to have a say: If you go to high school here in Kansas for at least three years, and you graduate having maintained a B average, you can qualify for in-state tuition to go to a State University or Community College. Of course, in-state tuition is still a huge challenge for these kids—just ask any of the other Kansas residents who qualify simply because they’ve lived in Kansas for a year or more—but the Act makes going to college just somewhat possible. It gives children like Gerardo’s a reason to stay in and graduate because there’s something for them on the other side. That’s why the MORE2 Board has supported the In-State Tuition Act and why our Education Task Force continues to advocate that the Act stay on the books in Kansas.

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act is different from the Kansas In-State Tuition Act. It wouldn’t give anyone in-state tuition—that would be left up to the states. The DREAM Act would say that if these same kind of students with no criminal record go to college and get at least an associate’s degree or more, they can be placed into a different line—not ahead of anybody—but in a different line to become legal permanent residents and eventually citizens. Same deal if you go into the military instead of college.

Now, the DREAM Act makes a lot of sense on a whole lot of levels, not the least of which is economically. Students who go to college and then get a normal status will be paying a whole lot more in taxes than if they stay undocumented and drop out of high school. And, they are a lot less likely to become one of my clients. Of course, this is statistically the case for all other groups as well, and that’s one of the reasons why MORE2 believes so strongly in better access to education—it doesn’t just benefit the student, it benefits all of us.

Then there’s the whole role-model effect: Just as Obama and Sotomayor can inspire other young people of color to do great things, a young person seeing siblings and family members and friends go to college and get good jobs and start a business can have a snowball effect—the reverse of the negative snowball effect we’ve seen in our communities for far too long.

For all of these reasons, the DREAM Act has bipartisan co-sponsorship and support which has increased each year that it has been introduced to Congress, and we’re hopeful that it will be successful this year. However, there are some people who really oppose it, and I’ve thought a lot about why that might be. One reason might be that if you are someone who has generally adopted very negative and harsh stances against any kind of comprehensive immigration reform, this bill really is very problematic for you. If you are advocating that we should spend millions of tax dollars to stop and hunt “The Illegals” and also pass laws that give them inferior rights and services, then you have to justify these expenditures and the social costs of such policies. If your whole argument is that “The Illegals” are criminals and killers and rapists and disease-bearers and societal drains and are otherwise just a really vile and horrible group of people, then the very existence of these students kind of pops that rhetorical bubble. How can you continue to claim that all undocumented immigrants are so horrible once these students are allowed to show the nation just how successful, productive and brilliant they can be once given the chance?

So, the MORE2 Board has voted to approve the following position on the DREAM Act:
· The Board of MORE2 endorses the DREAM Act.
· We believe that we must act on our values to preserve a vital asset: an educated group of promising immigrant students who have demonstrated a commitment to hard work and a strong desire to be contributing members of our society.
· We believe that this legislation, which provides a path to U.S. citizenship for hardworking and talented immigrant students who have been raised in the U.S., is critical to improving the pipeline from high school to college and proving meaningful employment.
· We believe that punishing students indefinitely and irremediably for decision made by adults many years ago stands in sharp contrast to American ideals. With the DREAM Act, Congress would legally recognize what is de facto true: These young people belong here.

Please join us in supporting the DREAM Act by communicating your support of this bill to your U.S. Senator and Congressperson.

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At 9:25 PM, Blogger Danifesto said...

Can't believe no one has commented on this! Yes very inspiring to have heads of state and government more resemble the nation we have become. I think some of the thinking you describe can also be attributed the "growing pains" of this demographic shift. Perceived (or real) loss of status, power, position tends to be taken very personally. However we have a choice on how to respond and what course of action to take. I applaud MORE2's vision and direction and hope they continue to promote positive change.


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