Charles: Walking in DACA shoes

My parents grew up in the south. They were brought up in the era of the Depression, and separately came north, settled in a city in the midwest, met, married and had three children. We barely knew our grandparents. My maternal grandfather died before my mother was married. We only saw our remaining grandparents two or three times growing up.

My parents raised us in that same midwest city. We had no say in the matter. We were children. They worked, bought a house, put us through college, and retired. My father lived to see his last grandchild celebrate her first Thanksgiving. My mother has lived long enough to be at that last grandchild’s high school graduation, and to hold her first great grandchild.

Two things I can’t imagine. One, I can’t imagine being 17 years old and realizing I might have to leave the only home I’d ever known. It probably wouldn’t be as traumatic if I was told I had to suddenly leave our hometown and move down south. The people in my extended family were nearly strangers, but they spoke the same language, if only in a slow southern accent. And two, I can’t imagine being afraid that my parents would be deported even if I were allowed to stay. When you’re a teenager, even when you think you’re grown (and what teenager doesn’t?), your family, especially your parents, are your life.

These thoughts have been running through my head as I try on a pair of DACA shoes.

The arguments for and against the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program are easy to engage in on an abstract level. Yes, we’re a country of laws. But unless you’re in a cave maintaining no contact with the outside world, you know the rules and laws have never been applied equally and fairly to all. And when I think back to my long-ago teenage and young adult years, I wonder how I would feel had I been brought here by undocumented parents, and suddenly found myself without a country to call my own.

If you can’t relate as a youngster, how about as a parent?

If you are a parent, chances are you would do anything to protect and provide for your child.

Would you do anything and everything in your power if your child was hungry to make sure that child was fed? Would you move your family into a car if you lost your home but had no other relatives to move in with and the shelters were already full with other homeless people and families? And would you move your family into a foreign country if you were all hungry, homeless, or fleeing terrorists?

Of course you would. Most parents are hard-wired to do whatever it takes when untenable situations endanger their children. We sacrifice. We go without food until our children are fed. We swaddle them in blankets even when we’re cold too. And sometimes, we have to move our babies places where we’re not legally welcomed, because keeping our children safe is the primal instinct we just can’t ignore.

Still, with 79 percent of Americans supporting the Dreamers, and many people supporting a pathway to citizenship for our undocumented relatives, friends, neighbors, and yes, strangers, there are plenty who can only speak in unsubstantiated platitudes about people “getting free stuff” and “voting illegally.” And no amount of convincing will sway them.

Earlier this year, talk show host Jimmy Kimmel tried to put a human face on the problem, hoping that those anti-immigrant hardliners would be persuaded if they could see a person, not a slogan. He tried to change the minds (and hearts) of a half-dozen people by introducing them to a young woman, who was a Dreamer and had a baby with her fiancé, who was in the service, and about to be deployed. If she is deported while he is overseas, it could be years before he sees his fiancée and infant daughter again.

With the exception of one woman, who grudgingly said, this woman should stay — but no others(!) — the rest of the group stuck to their guns. To me they came across as incredibly insensitive and totally lacking the empathy gene. Later, when he was a guest on Pod Save America, Kimmel said it actually was even nastier in the unedited version. He had hoped by humanizing the problem, he could make a difference. He wasn’t even sure the woman who “changed her mind” actually did.

He sounded disappointed. I had watched that segment. I was disappointed too.

I wish I could say I was surprised. I’m not. But I am discouraged.

Everyone who can say dismissively that their parents (or grandparents, or great grandparents) came here legally is missing the point.

The first non indigenous people who came here took advantage, took over, and then enacted laws against the people who were already here. They moved people off their land, kidnapped and enslaved some others they decided were three-fifths human, and to this day these “real Americans” benefit from the policies enacted by their ancestors to condemn non-European descendants to second-class citizenship. We’re not really a country of “laws” when the lawmakers have for centuries robbed, murdered, broken promises and treaties when it suited them, and changed the rules as they went along.

Now new people, many non-Europeans, want to come here and work and start new lives. And let’s not pretend we don’t hear that dog whistle. Would this really be a thing if the vast majority of Dreamers were from Norway, Ireland, Greece, Scotland, France, or Germany?

So how about we demand that our elected officials enact new comprehensive rules to protect those Dreamers who have worked to make America proud. Instead of ranting about building a wall (hey, wasn’t Mexico supposed to pay for that?) let’s build a few bridges, literally and figuratively. We should fix our deteriorating infrastructure with that border wall dough, and use a little compassionate capital to forge a pathway to citizenship.

When you try on and walk around in DACA shoes, you’ll quickly find out how uncomfortably they fit.

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