Posted by: Christian Association | March 11, 2010

Guest post: Welcoming the stranger among us

This is a guest post from CA board member Cheryl Shipman, the associate director of fellowships at Penn’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships.

Welcoming the stranger among us – that’s how I remember the line. The Bible in Basic English has it a little differently: Exodus 23:9 “Do not be hard on the man from a strange country who is living among you; for you have had experience of the feelings of one who is far from the land of his birth, because you yourselves were living in Egypt, in a strange land.”

The face of the US is changing. Here in a large coastal city, we’re used to many people of varying races, nationalities, languages and styles – and maybe many have come to terms with the US as a nation of immigrants. But the smaller towns and regions far from the coasts have, many of them, been fairly homogenous, or at least consistent over time – until recently. Newcomers, immigrants, those with funny accents or little English, strange food preferences and strikingly different clothes have been settling all throughout the US in places not used to dealing with the “other.”

This rapid influx seems to be changing public life much too quickly for some folks’ comfort, and there have been plenty of negative reactions. Or perhaps it’s the hard times in the economy and fear of “them taking our jobs.” Whatever the cause, not only does the US have very restrictive laws making it difficult for people to come here legally, there can be a great deal of personal antipathy and emotional outrage over that immigration, whether it’s legal or – because of restrictive immigration laws – illegal.

No matter what someone might think of the politics of immigration restriction and its effect on economics and job creation, I think they need to be touched by the situation of members of a group who are already here – “the strangers among us.” These are young adults and older teens whose parents brought them here when they were young children. Because the parents don’t have legal immigration documentation, neither do these now-adult children. These children have spent their entire life in the US. It’s the only country they know. English may be the only language they know. They’ve attended school in the US, played on the baseball teams, prayed in the churches, etc alongside all the other American children. They probably look no different from anyone else. But they are going to be treated differently as they grow up.

As these young people get toward their junior year in high school, they may start looking into colleges to apply to. They may seek afterschool or summer jobs, or be planning job training. And then they find out (sometimes for the first time) that they cannot. Because they are not legal immigrants, they don’t have social security numbers. That means there is no way they can work legally in the US.

Many colleges or universities will not admit them (although there is no law prohibiting the undocumented from enrolling). In many states, if they are admitted to a state school, they’ll be charged the out of state tuition, even though they have lived in that state almost all of their lives. They won’t be eligible at any school for any state or federal financial aid. No matter how well they’re doing in high school, or how active, they have absolutely no legal opportunities to continue to be productive, successful members of our communities. They can either linger on the fringes of US society or be deported to a country they may have left as infants. This isn’t a small number of individuals; 65,000 such students a year graduate from US high school.

The Dream Act proposes a pathway to legal status for some of these young people. Through it, according to http://dreamact.info/ “ undocumented young people could be eligible for a conditional path to citizenship in exchange for completion of a college degree or two years of military service. Undocumented young people must also demonstrate good moral character to be eligible for and stay in conditional residency. At the end of the process, the young person can finally become an American citizen.”

It seems little enough to do for those who really aren’t strangers among us. http://dreamact.info/ has links to US representatives and senators who still need to be lobbied to pass this bill.

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