Friday, March 19, 2010

Inadvertent activist . . .

Today's Civic Soapbox is by Sandy Mercer. She sent me a first draft of her essay weeks ago. As is the case with a lot of the essays I'm sent, it was too long and kind of wander-y. Sandy was expressing feelings and opinions that mattered deeply to her, and it's hard to write a disciplined essay about something that has lit a fire in your heart.

Sandy's a public school teacher, and, before now, she's never been an activist. It's still not a comfortable role for her, but Sandy seems to have felt a call to advocate for passage of the DREAM Act -- DREAM being an acronym for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act.  Sandy Mercer teaches writing, and she was convinced by stories written by her undocumented students that they deserve a chance to earn the right to stay in the only country they've ever called home.

Here's a link to her finished Civic Soapbox essay if you'd like to listen or read it.

Tuesday night I met with Sandy and a group of her fellow DREAMers for an hour or so at the Earth and Tea Cafe in downtown Harrisonburg. They've been getting  together once a week since October, trying to figure out what they can do in their community to educate friends, neighbors, fellow church members and colleagues at work about the advantages to America of passing the DREAM Act, and embracing undocumented minors who have a proven record of achievement.

I sat next to a young man who is, I think, a junior in high school. He was the youngest person present and the quietest. He didn't participate as the rest talked about what to do with the thick stack of petitions signed by hundreds of local people in favor of passage of the DREAM Act. Or about the four bus loads of Valley residents who are going to Washington to participate in Sunday's immigration reform March for America.

I'm southern, I'm social, I have a knee-jerk impulse to draw quiet, shy people into conversations. "So," I said, smiling at him, "is your immigration status secure?"

It may have been among the most insensitive questions I've ever asked anyone. Haltingly, shyly, the young man let me know that he didn't know how to answer it. Why? Because he didn't know if he could trust me. He was seventeen-years-old, doing very well in school, firmly a part of a circle of friends in the only country he's ever known, and he was afraid that saying the wrong thing to the wrong person could bring his whole life to a crashing halt.

It struck me at that moment how appropriate the acronym DREAM is for the Act this group hopes to see become law. When I was sixteen, it was perfectly plausible for me to dream anything I wanted. Perfectly okay for me to make plans to be anything I wanted to be. My future was in my hands.

My new young friend, however, can only dream, he can't plan. As things currently stand, his talents and his drive have very little to do with the shape of his future.

I found myself watching Sandy Mercer, the reluctant activist, whisked off the sidelines into the immigration reform debate by the power of her students' stories. And it seemed to me that each of us, before we make up our mind about this complex and contentious issue, should do as she did -- we should listen to a few stories of those whose futures are at stake.


  1. I fear that the coming debate on immigration will be rampant with partisanship and will turn on all the wrong issues. Folks will want to fight amnesty, build walls at the border, and make it harder for folks that are already here to gain citizenship.

    I can only hope that the debate will include real economic issues. The facts support the notion that the immigrant population is an important economic generator, raising wages for everyone, improving the quality of life for us all, and providing essential labor for corporate America and tax support for our government.

    I will be blogging and writing as much as possible to help point the debate to constructive ends. Thanks for this blog entry and the Soapbox piece.

  2. I've had the pleasure of meeting Sandy Mercer and I share her com/passion for these kids and their cause. I was born in Peru, but with an American father I was granted US citizenship from birth. That blue and gold passport has opened many doors for me, which I painfully realize the vast majority of my Peruvian compatriots cannot access. Thanks for contributing to public education about the DREAM act and the good it can do for tens of thousands of people.