A Student Candidate and Important Questions About Immigration

This morning, I read a piece in the New York Times about Emilio Vicente, who is running for student body president at UNC-Chapel Hill.  He’s notable because he came to America from Guatemala when he was six, brought illegally across the border by his parents.  His undocumented/illegal status is not something he hides, so his candidacy has reignited a debate about people in his situation.  Emilio didn’t choose to come to America illegally; his parents are responsible for that.  He grew up and has been educated here.  In the ways that seem most significant, he’s American, right?  Why should he have to deal with all the complications that this “undocumented” status carries?

In one of the most ignorant columns I’ve read in a long time, a leftist writer has claimed that Emilio’s candidacy “inflames all of (Tea Partiers’) most paranoid fantasies.”  I don’t think that’s even close to true.  I think there is much in Emilio’s story that Tea Partiers would applaud.

If the New York Times profile is accurate, this kid is seriously impressive, as are his parents.  They made difficult journeys to America, and once here, worked hard.  His parents took jobs plucking chickens in a poultry plant in Siler City.  I grew up in Wilkes County, where chickens are a major industry.  Chicken plucking jobs are about as rough as it gets, and I respect the immigrant who works hard in a job I don’t think I could stomach.  Emilio’s parents displayed admirable determination to build a better life for their child.

Emilio responded in the right way.  His parents wanted something different for him, and he worked hard to make that happen, hard enough to earn a full scholarship to UNC.  That is no easy thing.  Well done, Emilio.  And now, he’s involved in all sorts of things on campus and is running for student body president.  Who wouldn’t be proud to have a kid like that?

He’s clearly smart and hard-working, both traits that most Tea Partiers, and most Americans, respect and value.  I don’t hear anyone denying that.  And I don’t really think there’s any doubt that someone like Emilio can contribute a lot to America and North Carolina.  But here’s the problem.  We have such a messed up immigration system that people like Emilio and his parents find it virtually impossible to immigrate legally.

Many on the left are talking about how much they hope that Emilio Vicente will be able to succeed here.  But I’ll go one better.  I want more kids like him to succeed.  And I want their parents to be able to, as well.  I want an immigration system that welcomes the immigrant who desires a life in America and will work to build something better for himself and his children.  I want more Americans who hold down difficult jobs, provide for their families, contribute to their communities, value education, and excel through hard work, all without asking for a hand out.

The answer is not amnesty.  Unfortunately, that sets a terrible precedent and invites further illegal immigration.  It sends a strong signal to other would-be immigrants that coming illegally will pay off, because their kids will  eventually be granted citizenship.  That doesn’t deal with the problem; it fuels it.

But the answer is a system that makes immigration easier for people like Emilio’s parents.  Let’s let them come.  Don’t give welfare benefits – we don’t want to invite freeloaders – but let’s do allow people to come and stay as long as they’re working and providing for themselves.  People like that are no threat; they strengthen our country and our communities.  And for those who do come legally, work to provide for themselves, and don’t live off the state, citizenship should be available.  I welcome those people and those values.

A reformed system that makes it easier for people like Emilio’s parents to come here legally would ensure that, in the future, we don’t have kids in situations like Emilio’s, and that would be good for everyone.  There aren’t really any easy answers about what we do with the Emilos who are already here.  Those are complicated and difficult questions and more than I can deal with in this blog post.  But we can ensure that, in the future, people like Emilio and his parents aren’t faced with such difficult choices, and we would all be better off as a result.

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