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Immigration Reform: Who's In and Who's Out


acostaIn December of 2001, an unknown law professor named Barack Obama lectured on the Civil War Amendments (the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth) to his law school students at the University of Chicago.  He explained how the Civil War Amendments redefined the social contract by transforming former slaves, who were considered three-fifths of a person under the original Constitution, into citizens of the United States. As I sat in the audience, I began to think that my own transformation from illegal immigrant to United States citizen was the result of a similar reconstruction when President Ronald Reagan and Congress passed the Immigration Reform Act of 1986.

More than a quarter of a century after that 1986 act, the country is once again at the precipice of defining who is in and who is out.

The political discourse surrounding immigration reform is about political expediency—Republicans need to recruit Hispanics to the Republican Party—the economic benefits of immigration, and, of course, border security. (In fact, the bill is titled, “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Modernization Act.”) And when policymakers in Washington refer to the 1986 reform, they remark that it failed in all three categories. The current bill, with its mathematical formulas and percentages, reflects a Congress not wanting to repeat the mistakes of 1986.

But in deciding who can fully share in the American experience, a key question missing in the immigration debate is: what kind of citizens can immigration policy cultivate? From this perspective, the 1986 act was a success and should be seen a standard, not a cautionary tale of passing immigration reform; because it produced hundreds of thousands of students like me -- I was 12 when I received amnesty -- who not only benefited immensely from immigration reform, but later contributed to the life of our communities.

The Immigration Reform Act of 1986 allowed me to skip a generation in my education. Both of my grandmothers were illiterate, my mother, who finished the second grade, could barely write her name, and my father completed only the sixth grade. Against this educational background, and having no legal status, I would have been lucky to graduate from high school. Becoming a legal resident and eventually a United States citizen, however, made me eligible for federal student aid, and enabled me to attend Arizona State University.

In college, I met students from different socio-economic backgrounds who taught me, among other things, not to protect my family from my own ambition, a quiet sacrifice performed by Hispanic students for the sake of the family. College was a microcosm of American society. The knowledge I received from fellow students reshaped my perception of the world, and was central to my personal growth.

Instead of feeling campus alienation—which is something many students without legal status experience in school—college encouraged me to leave the nest. Armed with an American passport, I globe-trotted around the world where I learned of different ethical, religious, and intellectual ways of seeing the world. I also learned about how other people perceived the same world. (In Thailand I learned that Thais think of people from Mexico as elite athletes.) For fear of being arrested by Border Patrol and removed from the country, such mobility was a foreign concept to my family. Before being granted legal status, we never left Mesa, Ariz. I now understand that immobility not only prevents a person from understanding how people come at life from different places, but, more importantly, leads to societal incest, which contributes to nativism.

Cross-pollinating from American city to foreign country, from foreign country to the university, and from the university to American city, I returned to Arizona to engage in civic life on my own terms; I founded a scholarship, which I named after two of my public school teachers, who were instrumental in my educational development, which I give to a first-generation high-school student attending a four-year university; I use my law degree to teach young people about the American judicial system; and I write essays on public policy. Civic engagement, in short, is the bridge that connects my life experiences to ideas on how to improve my community. The 1986 act had the design of responsibility and the stamp of civic duty.

American society has changed demographically and technologically since 1986, but one precept that remains constant is the rights and duties each of us has to one another; in this regard, the 1986 reform succeeded in engendering an active citizenry. When President Obama signs the immigration bill into law (I’m an optimist), he will not need to refer to 19th century American history to remind us of this principle. He will simply need to point to the immigrants, who are now Americans, in the audience who embody this principle.

Juan Rocha is a criminal defense attorney in Tucson and holds a JD from UCLA and a Master of Public Policy from the University of Chicago.