President of Claremont School of Theology, Rev. Dr. Jerry D. Campbell is an ordained Elder of The United Methodist Church who has a long career in the administration in theological schools and higher education. He has served as head librarian for both University of Southern California and Duke University, as well as Perkins School of Theology and The Iliff School of Theology in Denver. Campbell has served on accreditation review teams for the Association of Theological Schools, and serves as a commissioner of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). Campbell has published nearly 40 articles and book chapters and has given over 70 invited addresses on educational, administrative and theological topics. This post was originally published on Campbell’s blog, President’s Pen.
Unless you are Native American or African American, you or one or more of your ancestors most likely arrived in America by immigrating here from some other part of the world. The move here may have been motivated by a need to escape conflict, perhaps by the hope for a better chance to achieve economic prosperity, or maybe just to enjoy the increasing reputation of the land of freedom and opportunity. Immigration takes place for many reasons, but it usually represents an effort to improve the quality of one’s life.
Sometimes those in the past who immigrated to what is now the United States of America did so by permission of the existing residents, and sometimes they came without permission. The earliest European immigrants came without permission from the native residents because the country (or known parts of it) had been “claimed” by some foreign imperial power, Great Britain being the most notable. Those early immigrants overwhelmed the native residents and stayed by virtue of superior weaponry. Eventually the descendants of the earliest East Coast immigrants revolted against Great Britain and declared themselves the owners and governors of the land, creating the United States of America in the process. Technically they and their descendants (many of us) became “legal aliens” in this land simply because they were powerful enough to assert it to be so. Eventually they created laws to regulate the arrival of other immigrants who, if they met certain criteria, could come under “legal” circumstances.
It is also clear that most of the earliest immigrants came with a certain degree of desperation to improve their lives. Even when they came from families of some means, they were usually not the firstborn males who stood to inherit wealth and control. Those early immigrants risked everything to make the treacherous trip here hoping that they could improve their lot. We who are their descendants now enjoy the benefits of their risk-taking bravery to endure hardships, to apply themselves often to backbreaking labor, and eventually to create a better future.
Given this “immigrant history” of so many Americans, a terrible irony must be attached to the plight of a group of current day young immigrants called the “DREAMers.” Their parents (derisively referred to as “illegal aliens”) also brought them here in the desperate search for a better life, the same motivation as that of those first “illegal aliens” who came from Europe. Like the earliest European illegal immigrants to America, there was and is no future for them in the countries from which they came. Brought in by their parents, those identified as DREAMers arrived when they were young, some only infants. For most of them, this is the only country they know; English is their first language; and they dream the same dreams for a future in the land of freedom and opportunity as do others of their generation who were born in the USA. The irony is that in spite of our own self-validated claim to “legality,” we—immigrants or the ancestors of immigrants—will not grant them the right to stay “legally.” As a result, their hopes for the future are increasingly desperate, an irony that should not occur or be tolerated by this nation of immigrants.
Unlike the earliest European immigrants, however, the DREAMers do not have the power to make themselves legal. For that to happen, they need our help. Surely enough of us appreciate the pathway leading to our own presence here to provide the political influence to bring about “legality” for these bright, hopeful young men and women. We should help them because in the end they are no different or less deserving than us, or those who came before us.
We should also support them because we have at the heart of our nation of immigrants a document that asserts that all people have certain basic rights. When those early immigrants decided to revolt against Great Britain and establish a government of their own, they created a foundational document we know as the Constitution. It should be a familiar document to all Americans. Its preamble makes a profound and memorable assertion: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men (today this would read “persons”) are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
Do we no longer believe this eloquent claim? By our actions toward the DREAMers, we have in essence modified this magnificent statement to read “that all U.S. citizens are created equal….” Our actions deny that such unalienable rights extend to modern day immigrants who have arrived here out of desperation but without permission. Nor has Congress been willing to extend those rights to their children, the DREAMers, who had no culpability in their being brought here. Instead we give them limited or no rights, occasionally detain them, and sometimes deport them. We have to end this terrible irony.
There are, of course, other reasons for us to support them. If you meet some of the DREAMers, it won’t take long to know that you are in the presence of great potential for the future of America. If you will take the opportunity to hear them present their case in person, you will find them to be charming, persuasive, and impressive. You will find their dreams to be commendable; they share the full range of hopes characteristic of their peer group. The Congressional Budget Office and the Joint Committee on Taxation estimate that they would make a significant contribution to the tax base over the next decade if given a chance to enter the system. And there is a way for them to enter the system. These young DREAMers have organized a national effort to work for passage of the so-called “Dream Act.” The Dream Act is a bi-partisan piece of legislation designed to create a pathway to citizenship for these young people. One can’t help but marvel at the value of their experience organizing a national effort to gain support; it is clear that they can not only make a significant contribution to the American workforce but also be a powerful source for tomorrow’s political leadership—can be that is if we let them claim their rights. There is hardly a better way to learn than in the cauldron of necessity and in the midst of real world experience.
Whether you stand in a religious tradition, identify as a secular humanist, or claim to be nothing in particular, providing a pathway to citizenship for the DREAMers is also simply the humane thing to do. There are arguments against it, but finally none of them escape the limitations of self-interest. Supporting the Dream Act is the American thing to do; it is the smart thing to do; and it is the humane thing to do. Seldom do we have such a clear right choice. By urging our congressional representatives to support the Dream Act, we can end the tragic irony and extend citizenship to these deserving young immigrants.