What does it mean to be an American? For Alonso Guillen, being an American meant being a Houston Texans fan. It meant playing baseball and soccer. Being an American meant being “DJ Ocho” on the local Lufkin radio station and mixing hip hop and country music. For Alonso, being an American meant graduating from Lufkin High School and attending St. Patrick Catholic Church and working hard at multiple jobs to make a living.
For Alonso Guillen, being an American also meant leaving his home in Lufkin, Texas, and driving 100 miles south to rescue Hurricane Harvey victims. And sadly, for Alonso Guillen, being an American also meant making the ultimate sacrifice to save the lives of others. Alonso Guillen drowned when the rescue boat he was manning became caught in a powerful current and capsized. His body was found floating in the river on September 1.
Alonso reminds me of many of the young men I grew up with in Texas. Like him, they loved their sports teams, went to school, worked hard, and when the community needed them, they came through.
We’ve seen a lot of stories of American men and women like this during the post-Harvey response. So what makes Alonso’s story so important?
Alonso’s story is important because some other Americans would say he is not a real American and has no place in our country. They would say he is stealing American jobs and is a burden on the community.
You see, Alonso is a “DREAMer”. He was brought to the U.S. as a child. He was an undocumented immigrant, until President Obama signed the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order. Once DACA was introduced, Alonso, along with 800,000 others, signed up, passed a criminal background check, and paid $465 initially and at each renewal. Still considered unauthorized immigrants, DACA recipients may work legally in the U.S. and could live without fear of deportation.
Until yesterday. On September 5, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced that DACA will be terminated with a 6 month delay. For DREAMers in Houston, this must feel like being hit with a second hurricane. Current DACA recipients can apply for renewal, but no new applications will be accepted.
What does it mean to be an American? This is a question that we, as a nation, must answer. For young white men marching with torches in Charlottesville last month, being an American means being white. For the first part of our country’s history, being an American did mean that. Only whites could be citizens and only white men could vote. But the suffrage movement and the civil rights movement changed that. Didn’t it?
What does it mean to be an American in 2017? Does it mean closing our borders and fearing those who seem different than us? Or does it mean embracing diversity and recognizing the ways that our diverse experiences makes our nation stronger?
Many around the country see the DREAMers as symbolic of what our nation should be. Others see them as symbolic of what they fear our country may become.
The data show that immigrants in the U.S., including DREAMers and the undocumented, benefit our communities significantly more than they cost, both in economic terms and social terms. Urban areas with the largest immigrant communities, like Chicago, Los Angeles and New York, are also bustling economies. In smaller communities around the country, immigrants are making strong contributions to local economies that, in many cases, were fading.
The reasons that DREAMers and other undocumented immigrants are undocumented is because Congress has, for political reasons, failed to pass a comprehensive immigration bill that would provide reasonable legal pathways to residency and citizenship. The failure of Congress to do so, is what prompted President Obama to sign the DACA order in the first place. The immigration system in the U.S. is broken and it has been for a long time. For many immigrants, there is NO path to legal residency, much less citizenship. For others, there is a path, but it is expensive and takes decades to complete. Decades. This is not an exaggeration. For example, a Mexican immigrant who is the unmarried child of a U.S. citizen is currently on a 21 YEAR wait list.
What does it mean to be an American? For Alonso Guillen, it meant leaving home at a moment’s notice to help those who needed help, regardless of their color, class or legal status.
For me, it means honoring Alonso, and all of the other Americans that we call DREAMers, by letting them know that they welcome in this country, in our communities, in our schools, workplaces, and universities. They are already part of us. They have already given their lives for us. What will we give them in return?
We, as voters, have the power to speak up for what we want “being American” to mean. Just as the Harvey victims need the support of the nation, so do the DREAMers and the undocumented. We have the power to demand that Congress recognize these Americans. Let’s use that power to demand that Congress create reasonable, bipartisan, humane immigration reform.