Irene is not just a good student. She is one of the very best at her school, near the top of her class and hard working as they come. Under ordinary circumstances, she would be filling out applications to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke, Wake Forest, and other top universities. She would be competing for prestigious scholarships.
She would be visiting these campuses and talking over her options with academic counselors, comparing programs and getting a feel for what her life might be like in these different settings. It would be one of the most exciting times of her life. Having put herself in the enviable position of being able to pick and choose among excellent universities as a result of her extraordinary work and commitment to her education and future, she would have the whole world at her doorstep.
There is never again a time in person’s life quite like being 17 or 18 years old, especially for someone like Irene, a student with the potential and drive to do or be almost anything she wants to be. If the election of Barack Obama meant anything, it meant that the American Dream really does exist.
Unlike our most recent president, Obama was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, did not have every break and advantage handed to him along the way. He came from a very poor background, but he worked hard, never letting the challenges of his childhood or the negative stereotypes about his ethnic heritage prevent him from accomplishing his goals as a student. Not only did he attend Harvard Law School, he was the first black student to ever become president of the Harvard Law Review. Now he is President of the United States. His story is an affirmation of what is possible if a person is only determined enough to succeed.
All of this stands as an inspiration then, for Irene? Well, no. In fact, it is a pill perhaps even more bitter to swallow. The one thing Irene cannot do, regardless of how hard she works or what she accomplishes in high school, regardless of how highly her teachers think of her or how bejeweled her academic record may be, is to make herself an American citizen. She cannot change the circumstances of her birth, or account for the decisions her parents made.
And what decisions are these, exactly? To come to America to find a better life? To work hard and earn a place of respect in the community? To open a restaurant and feed people? To send their children to a better school?
The issue of illegal immigration has been hotly debated, and people of good will can certainly disagree about it. Unfortunately, the debate has not always been waged by people of good will; we have all seen depressing examples of how quickly bigotry can be introduced into the equation. “Those people” are coming here to take our jobs, spreading their diseases and lowering the quality of life wherever “they” go. Yes, depressing, the ignorance and the hatred that so often goes with it.
Still, the issue remains, and it is a serious issue that must be addressed by serious people, not the louts who typically dominate public discourse with their shrill voices, sharpened to a point by the whetstone of talk radio. That’s all well and good. In the meantime, what I want to know is this: What about Irene?
Irene should be filling out applications to the best universities in the state, but she isn’t. She cannot, because while she has a grade point average that very few students can match, she does not have what even the laziest, least ambitious students all have: a social security number. Without one, she has no realistic shot at getting into any of those schools. The very best she can hope for is to get in, and then have to pay out-of-state tuition, which so far exceeds in-state tuition rates as to make it impossible to even consider, especially since she cannot compete for any scholarships.
Under ordinary circumstances, her achievements in high school would have brought her to the beginning of something bigger, perhaps much bigger. That would be up to her, because in America, as Barack Obama has proven, you can be anything if you work hard enough and believe strongly enough in yourself and your future.
But these circumstances are not ordinary, even if they are not unique. Irene may not be the only child of illegal immigrants to excel in high school, and not the only one with the potential to achieve wondrous things at our finest universities. And yet, there she is, at the door, which, for her, is locked.
Whether we agree or disagree about illegal immigration, there are fundamental questions that go much deeper than the issue itself, especially in the abstract. If an illegal immigrant appears at the hospital so badly in need of treatment that death is a real possibility, would we choose to ignore it and let him die? If a student does everything in her power to achieve the American dream, are we going to deny her the chance that any of our sons and daughters would have? Remember, even if you have little sympathy for what her parents chose to do, Irene did not make that choice.
Adversity teaches us things about ourselves, sometimes things we might just as soon not learn. In these bad economic times, when so many are suffering, it is all the more likely that anger toward illegal immigrants will be ginned up. The question is, even in tough times like these, do we really want to live in a country callous enough to say “No, you can’t” to Irene?
President Obama’s mantra before the election was “Yes, we can.” I sincerely hope Irene is part of “we” and not just another one of “those people.”