I’d like to take a moment to shine a spotlight on a heroic young man named Alonso Guillén, whose moving story was recently recounted in The Washington Post:
As Harvey’s wrath descended on Texas, Alonso Guillén’s father begged him not to make the 120-mile trek to the Houston area to rescue those stranded in floodwaters.
“It is too dangerous,” his father pleaded, Guillén’s brother recalled.
But when it came to helping others, Guillén, a 31-year-old Mexican immigrant, was headstrong, relatives told The Washington Post. On Aug. 29, Guillén left his job as a radio host early to pile into a white Chevy Tahoe with a group a friends. The volunteers from Lufkin made the drive to Cyprus Creek in Spring, a Houston suburb. Once there, they set out on five boats, using a walkie-talkie app to identify people who needed rescuing.
Late that night, as Guillén and his group were on their way to pluck survivors from an apartment complex, their rescue boat slammed into an Interstate 45 bridge. The collision hurled Guillén and his friend, Tomas Carreon, 25, also of Lufkin, into the rushing floodwaters. A third person in the boat was later rescued, grasping onto a tree, the Houston Chronicle reported.
On Friday, searchers found Carreon’s body. On Sunday, Guillén’s body floated to the surface, his brother, Jesus Guillén said.
“He died wanting to serve,” Jesus Guillén, a 36-year-old truck driver from Lufkin, told The Washington Post. “He could have stayed home watching the news on television, but he chose to go help.”
Alonso Guillén was a hero. He was also a participant in Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program (DACA), an Obama-era program that has shielded 800,000 young undocumented immigrants who grew up in this country from deportation.
Earlier today, the Trump administration announced it was seeking to eliminate DACA. In light of this announcement, I can’t help but reflect on Alonso Guillén’s life and heroic death, both of which illuminate everything wrong with this cutting this program.
I’ve tried to keep my blog tightly focused on the arts, arts management, and cultural events as a whole. Although I have lots of thoughts on politics—thoughts that no doubt trickle through here and there—I’ve tried to keep these under wraps as much as possible. I’m not, after all, a political pundit, and there is a vast number of places people can turn to for this type of commentary, made by people who have much greater familiarity with these various issues.
But in light of today’s announcement about DACA, I must speak out.
This is, after all, an area where I hold—or at least held—a degree of expertise. I lived in Latin America off and on for more than a decade, and taught both Spanish at Vanderbilt University, and Latin American History at the University of Kansas. Moreover, I used to work for a Latin American-focused think tank here in Minneapolis, and published articles on the experiences of indigenous immigrants from Mexico.
I’ve been out of the field for many years now, but this is an issue I’ve been deeply involved in, on both sides of the border.
And the administration’s position on DACA is absolute folly. And, quite simply, morally wrong.
There are many arguments that can be made about the United States’ immigration policy, and people of good conscience can disagree on its costs and benefits. The same is not true of DACA, and the 800,000 so-called “dreamers” who took advantage of the program.
DACA was, after all, itself a compromise—an attempt at finding middle ground between forces that stood either for or against large-scale immigration reform. The notion was that while we may not agree on immigration policy as a whole, or what to do with undocumented immigrants already here, surely there was bipartisan agreement about what to do for those who were brought here as children by their immigrant parents, and have never known another country. The dreamers are for all intents and purposes Americans, in every way but having an American passport. Why should we punish them for crimes their parents committed years ago, when the children themselves have done nothing wrong? And have so much to offer the U.S.?
Again, the dreamers didn’t themselves choose to break any laws by coming here, nor did they choose to “cut in line.” And through DACA, they worked through the system to legalize their status. Specifically, they applied for this protected status once the program was created—it wasn’t just magically bestowed upon them—and had to be approved after a rigorous screening process. Among other things, they had to clear criminal background checks, and either have a high-school degree or be enrolled in high school (or similar educational program).
They had to earn their protected status.
And earn it they most certainly did. Taken as a whole, DACA has been a tremendous success, and the 800,000 dreamers are exceptional… exactly the kind of people this country needs. Studies have shown that 98% of the dreamers are bilingual, having successfully learned English. Currently 91% are employed, and after enrolling in the program and securing its protections, 69% of dreamers reported moving to a job with better pay. Approximately 5% reported starting their own company, a figure that jumps to 8% for dreamers 25 or older—a much higher percentage than Americans as a whole (3.1%). Overall, the dreamers’ salaries helped boost their communities’ economic output; 16% bought their first home after participating in DACA, which led to the creation of jobs and the infusion of new, local spending. And since joining the program, many dreamers openly pursued higher ed or some sort of professional training. Among those currently in school, 72% are pursuing a bachelor’s degree or higher.
This is what makes rescinding DACA so short-sighted. The economy will take a very real hit, and lose a large pool of highly qualified talent. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce agrees. From its statement earlier today, “[T]he original DACA program announced in 2012 was premised on sound public policy, and unlike DAPA, it was not challenged in court. Individuals enrolled in good faith and became ingrained in our communities and the nation’s economy. To reverse course now and deport these individuals is contrary to fundamental American principles and the best interests of our country.”
But what makes the administration’s announcement so cruel, and such a betrayal, is that this new policy is poised to strike out at dreamers for having trusted the government’s word and taking part in the program… for attempting to play by the rules. After registering for DACA, and providing data to purchase houses and track employment, the dreamers have given the administration their names, social security numbers, phone numbers, addresses… everything it needs to track them down and deport them. To a country most of them have never visited.
Think that sounds dramatic? Consider that it’s already happening right now. Driven to produce results and display impressive numbers, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has moved from tracking down and deporting criminals to going after low hanging fruit. Under the new administration, ICE has more than doubled the number of arrests of noncriminal undocumented immigrants. As TIME recently reported:
In a four-day operation at the end of July [in San Diego], ICE arrested 650 people. Of those, 457 weren’t targets of the raid. In other words, a full 70% of the immigrants swept up in this operation were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. …
According to data provided to TIME by ICE, which is not considered final until the end-of-year report, 44% of removals haven’t had criminal records so far in fiscal year 2017.
‘It’s basically a push through a lot of different ways to try to deport as many people as possible without regard to whether or not they’re a public safety threat,’ says Kate Voigt, associate director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
This is outrageous. The dreamers—people like Alonso Guillén—trusted us. They took advantage of a government program to come out of the shadows, and to fully and officially participate in American life. In the only country they’ve ever known. They used this opportunity exactly as it was intended—to better their lives, and in doing so to better their communities and the country as whole. And now that trust is being used against them.
Could you sell your house, sell your business, leave your job, and abandon everything you know in six months and go into hiding? Knowing if you don’t, that a hostile police force would use this paper trail to track you down and deport you to a country you’ve never lived in?
Could you imagine this happening if you were someone like Alonso Guillén who literally had just been risking his life to save others?
My fellow Americans… we are better than this.