Benita Veliz has everything a young girl on the rise could want, starting with a killer resume. She was only 16 when she was named the valedictorian of her class at San Antonio’s Jefferson High School. She then earned a full scholarship to St. Mary’s University, one of South Texas’ most prestigious schools, where she double majored in biology and sociology. In college, she was involved in student government. She sang in the school choir. She volunteered at a local children’s hospital. She fostered dreams of going to law school and entering politics. And she did all of that while working full time as a waitress in a Mexican restaurant.
Kind of sounds like the Generation Y answer to Sonia Sotomayor, doesn’t she?
Well, hold up a sec. There’s a problem.
You see, Benita Veliz is an illegal immigrant, and according to the law, she has no business being in this country.
Kind of puts a damper on things, doesn’t it?
Well, the situation isn’t her fault. She came to the U.S. at the age of 8. Her parents arrived on a tourist visa and they simply never left. Since then, Benita Veliz has had to come to terms with the hard facts of her illegal status. She can’t qualify for a Social Security card. She can’t get a driver’s license. And, like millions of other illegal immigrants, she has had to live with the constant fear of deportation.
All of those hard facts surfaced after Benita Veliz ran a stop sign in Helotes, a small town northwest of San Antonio, on January 21, 2009. She was stopped by a patrol officer. The officer, acting exactly as he is required to do, contacted immigration authorities. Her illegal status was verified and she was jailed overnight.
And this is where the dream of living in the U.S. ends for many illegal immigrants. Arrest. Jail. A bus ride back across the border.
Which means that Benita Veliz is not alone.
Nearly 65,000 second generation illegal immigrants graduate from U.S. high schools every year. Many of these graduates speak Spanish as a second language. For them, as for Benita Veliz, the idea of going back to Mexico is as terrifying as exile to the Moon. They know no one in Mexico. They don’t know the culture, the laws…in short, they don’t know how to survive.
Deportation is practically a death sentence.
It certainly represents the end of their lives as they know them.
But there is hope looming on the horizon for at least a few of those second generation illegal immigrants in the form of the DREAM Act. Simply put, the DREAM Act is a congressional bill that makes it possible for folks like Benita Veliz to earn her citizenship by serving in the military or by going to college. In a rare example of common sense, lawmakers from both sides of the aisle got together and acknowledged that there are quite a few young people living in this country illegally through no fault of their own. There ought to be some way, they reasoned, to assimilate those young people who have been in the country more than ten years and have demonstrated the desire to excel.
Makes sense, right?
Most people seem to think so. The DREAM Act has gotten very little serious opposition. And with a sympathetic president in the White House, the DREAM Act has an excellent chance of becoming a law.
Unfortunately, it may come too late to help Benita Veliz. The DREAM Act was introduced in mid-March of this year, barely two months after Ms. Veliz’s arrest. Recently a federal immigration judge granted her a three month continuance, which means she can remain here, pulling for the DREAM Act.
Of course, even if the DREAM Act passes in time, it may not help Benita Veliz. You see, none of her family can legally petition for her to stay, because they too are illegal immigrants. The situation seems dire, and even her own lawyers are doubtful about the outcome.
But here’s the rub. Benita Veliz is really only one victim in a much larger tragedy. Stated in the simplest language possible, our immigration system is broken. It needs fixing, and it needs fixing now.
So what’s standing in the way?
Well, it’s a muddled mess of bureaucratic red tape, for one thing. For another, illegal immigrants lack a grassroots support system to give them a unified front. If there was an advocate, somebody to rally behind, somebody to give the cause a unified voice, that person might be able to open doors for meaningful immigration reform. The first step would be to simply the process of living and working in America. Worker visas are a great start. So too is the DREAM Act. The second, and more difficult step, would be to overcome the inculcated sense of fear illegal immigrants have of American authority, such as the police and immigration agents. The latter can only be achieved through some sort of advocate–whether that is an individual or a group I don’t think it matters.
But there is a larger problem than confusing policies and a lack of representation: namely, from a financial standpoint, we have little incentive to change the immigration laws. People need a damn good reason to bring about a fundamental restructuring of their laws. They’re not going to step away from the comfortably warm glow of complacency out of the goodness of their hearts. Right now, about the only thing an illegal immigrant can look forward to in exchange for going through all the red tape of becoming a citizen is the privilege of paying taxes–and let’s face it, that ain’t much of an incentive. (People like Benita Veliz–who does pay taxes, by the way, thanks to an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number–are rare.)
Furthermore, those of us here in the country legally enjoy a financial benefit from hiring illegal immigrants. Those illegals are basically a thinly disguised slave labor caste, working at back-breaking and mind-numbing jobs for pennies on the dollar. We don’t like to talk about it, but even those of us who are deeply offended by injustice are still happy to have our roofs repaired in the middle of summer and our septic tanks flushed and our favorite restaurant’s dishes washed as cheaply as possible.
Right now, there is no serious incentive to fix our broken system because we have not addressed the fundamental issue of money. Bipartisan efforts such as the DREAM Act are great, but they still fail to give people a financial incentive to change the status quo. And until we do that, until people have a real benefit in becoming U.S. citizens, until we start punishing companies for exploiting America’s modern slave population, our immigration problems will continue.