A (temporary) pass for children of undocumented immigrants

fr immigrationAt first glance, this 14-year-old girl with a soft smile and a round face may seem like the all-American kid.

She’s been in Girl Scouts since the first grade. Her dad works in construction. Currently a high school sophomore, she hopes to work in the medical field some day.

Time to tackle immigration reform

Now that the health care debate is over, here’s what we have: a very middle-of-the-road health insurance reform package. Most on the left wanted much more (the public option), while those on the right admitted they’d like to control health insurance and medical costs but spent all their energy fighting the left as opposed to producing their own proposal.

Time to move on. On the next major domestic issue identified by the Obama administration — immigration reform — we can’t do middle of the road. We need bold immigration reform, a way to bottle the allure of America that will attract the 21st century’s top recruits from around the world while at same time enacting laws that will discourage mass waves of illegal immigration.

This is a complicated issue. Reform should not focus so much on punishing those who are already here illegally — especially the kids and young adults who had no choice in the matter — as it should on controlling future problems. We’ve got to provide paths to citizenship for those already here. It’s just ridiculous for our country to spend energy and resources packing up young men in their 20s and sending them back to countries they know nothing about. Did anyone read the story in the Asheville paper last week about the bust where one of the arrested was in his 20s, had been here illegally since age 2, and immigration authorities were going to ship him back to the Latin American country of his birth that he hasn’t visited since leaving? It makes no sense.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote last week (see excerpt) about a dinner he went to honoring the best young scientific minds in American high schools. The honorees read like a phone book from China, Pakistan, India, Vietnam and other parts of the world.

No one is saying that the American kids we all rhapsodize about — the Caucasians playing sports and hanging out at the mall — aren’t just as smart. They’re just different. Our kids usually tend to mature later, get serious about life and school later, and that’s OK. But we need to keep the doors open to those problem-solving immigrants who push their children into science careers.

And then we have the immigrants mostly from points south who have are getting here way too quickly for some but who, obviously, are much more willing to do blue collar work for wages that allow business owners — farmers, contractors, restaurant owners — to earn a profit. When I was 12, the tobacco and vegetable fields provided summer work for Southern suburban kids one generation off the farm who needed a job; today, those same jobs are held almost exclusively by immigrants, legal and illegal.

It’s seems pretty obvious that the future success of the U.S. economy is dependent on rolling out the welcome mat to diversity. Immigration reform needs to slow the flow of illegal immigration from the south while providing reasonable access to those who want to work — whether it’s in the fields or in the labs — and those who want to attend our universities and colleges. The country that leaves the door open will rule the 21st century, and I’m afraid that we are leaning more toward an irrational fear of immigrants. If that sentiment takes roots, we’ll all suffer the consequences.

(Scott McLeod can be reached in This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Undocumented students receive helping hand from Franklin principal

Despite the daunting road ahead, Franklin High School principal Gary Shields is steering his undocumented students toward the naturalization process. Gaining citizenship would give his students a shot at higher education and better job opportunities.

“They’re not going home, and so we’ve got to find some way that they can make a contribution to our society,” said Shields.

Shields became interested in helping the students after one of his football players came to him for help after being threatened with deportation last summer.

Shields assisted the student in applying for citizenship and decided to do the same for the rest of the undocumented students at his school.

“The students look at me saying, ‘I don’t even know anyone in Mexico, I don’t even know anything about the culture,’” said Shields. “I call them the hip kids. They came here on mama’s hip. They know nothing about their homeland.”

Shields enlisted the help of Saul Olvera, a Macon County Middle School business teacher who brings firsthand experience of the naturalization process.

The duo met with undocumented students and their parents earlier this school year to educate them on the lengthy, expensive procedure.

“Going through the process was tedious, it was expensive, it required many trips,” said Olvera, who said he’s returning the favor after receiving help from his own teachers in the past.

Shields stressed the importance of starting paperwork early since the application procedure can take five to eight years to complete.

A 16-year old junior at Franklin High School said she’s still waiting to hear on a naturalization application that her parents submitted eight years ago.

Despite the long delay, there’s no guarantee that she will become a U.S. citizen. If she doesn’t become a legal resident by the time she turns 18 next December, she will have to restart the entire process.

“I kind of don’t think it’s fair, for the kids,” said the student, who would like to see children prioritized over adults in the naturalization process. “We have more opportunities than they do.”

While she and her fellow undocumented students wait for a decision, they live with an ever-present fear.

“We can’t go out like other people,” the junior said. “We can get deported ... We’re terrified for our parents to get deported.”

Unlike their classmates, undocumented students cannot obtain a driver’s license, check out materials from the public library, or work summer jobs legitimately.

Olvera and Shields have contacted county commissioners and state representatives to point out treatment they see as unfair.

“Most of the students that are in school now did not have the option to come or not,” said Olvera. “That is the poignant disadvantage. Why are children being punished for something they had no control over? ... We’re just trying to make their dreams possible.”

For young illegals, a coming-of-age quandary

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.”

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Waynesville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Fundamental issues are ignored in immigration debate

By Marsha Crites • Guest Columnist

She is very thin, about 6 years old, her hair is unkempt and her nose is running, but her smile is broad and captivating. It is hard to walk with her wrapped around my waist in the marketplace.

Community colleges should admit children of all immigrants

Too often debates about immigration veer way off course, inhabiting some netherland of hysteria that is so far from reality it borders on the ridiculous. In the past couple of weeks we in North Carolina have witnessed just such a situation as the decision that community colleges should admit illegal immigrants exploded into newspapers and radio talk shows.

Candidates share similar views on immigration

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series on campaign issues in the 11th District Congressional race between Republican Congressman Charles Taylor and Democratic challenger Health Shuler.

Voters looking to the topic of immigration reform to help decide who to vote for in the Nov. 7 race for the 11th District congressional seat will be hard pressed to find any philosophical differences between the two candidates.

Immigration and a complicit, angry America

On July 13, the Buncombe County Republican Action Club posted two billboards in Asheville featuring a photograph of a Mexican flag flying over an American flag, the latter of which was also turned upside down. The accompanying message read, simply, “Had Enough?” I’m not sure, but I believe the original photograph was taken when some high school students in California hoisted the flags in this configuration, a stunt that was quickly shut down, but not before the photograph was taken and transformed into a rallying cry for the Action Club and its supporters. The topic, of course, is illegal immigration, a complex problem that the Action Club would like you to believe is not complex at all, but the result of bleeding heart liberalism, pure and simple.

Swain teacher fills vital role for Latino students

By Michael Beadle

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series on some of the issues faced by new Latino immigrants to this region.

Cristina Heath, a native of Mexico and a Spanish teacher at Swain County High School and Middle School, has mixed feelings about the growing number of Hispanic immigrants in Western North Carolina.

Learning the language

By Michael Beadle

When Lori McLeod first started teaching English as a Second Language at Tuscola High School in Haywood County, she had two students. They didn’t constitute enough to make a class, so she would pull them out of classes for tutoring.

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