I used to believe that clearing up the skilled-immigrant backlog and creating a startup visa should be Congress’ top legislative priorities. This is what I focused on in my book, “Immigrant Exodus.”
If you had told me a documentary could shift my mindset, I would have said you were crazy. That was before I watched “Documented” — a film that made me realize there is a piece of legislation even more desperately in need of passage: the DREAM Act.
There are an estimated 1.8 million children in the United States who could be classified as “illegal immigrants,” according to the Immigration Policy Center. They didn’t knowingly break any laws. Their parents brought them to this country to give them a better future.
These “DREAMers” as they are called, grew up as Americans, believing they were entitled to the same rights and freedoms as their friends. But, because they don’t have the proper paperwork, they are forced to live in the shadows of society — as second-class human beings with limits on where they can work and study, and what they can do.
This is unconscionable in a country that prides itself on being a champion of human rights.
This reality was brought to life for me in the film by Jose Antonio Vargas, a Filipino immigrant brought to this country when he was 12 years old. Vargas shared a Pulitzer Prize for a story he co-wrote while working at The Washington Post in 2007, and he made headlines two years ago by revealing in a New York Times Magazine article that he is an undocumented immigrant.
In “Documented,” Vargas tells of how he didn’t know he was illegal until he was 16, when he went to apply for a driver’s license. He lived, from that point on, in constant fear of being deported. At every turn, through his days at school and his rise through the ranks of journalism, he would have to lie about his status.
Most troublesome was the way he was cut off from his mother, who sent him away to live with his grandparents in America. He couldn’t travel back to the Philippines and she couldn’t get a visa to travel to America. So, for over 20 years, they drifted apart.
Vargas’ story changed me, giving me a clearer window on the life of an illegal immigrant. His story and the manner in which it is told makes you better understand their emotions and hardships.
I hope all of our political leaders watch this film. They need to understand that skilled immigration is an economic issue that is directly tied to the health of our economy.
But this is about more than the economy: providing basic human rights to the millions of undocumented children who live in the shadows of U.S. society is something we must do to heal the soul of this nation.
Comprehensive immigration reform is caught in the quagmire of partisan politics. At best, the odds are 50-50 that any legislation will pass. It is bad enough we are gambling with the economic future of this country. Let’s not gamble with the lives of its DREAMers.
Congress should approve the DREAM Act as a down payment. This can’t wait.
Vivek Wadhwa is vice president of Innovation and Research at Singularity University and Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University.