I met my first real friend in 1971 when I was five years old. He was new to the class; new to the school; new, it turned out, to the country. He was cheerful and trusting, and I thought he kind of looked like me. We became best friends immediately.
Tony was from a place called Peru, he said. Over the years and decades, I found out things, some right away, some after we grew up, some just this year.
His parents, Julio and Antonieta Rios, like the parents of a lot of kids in Los Angeles, spoke little to no English. Neither did Tony, just several months before I met him. He made a friend in his apartment complex, a daily companion who spoke English, and also spent a summer watching a lot of American television, so that by the time he started school in September, he spoke English as well as any kid in the class.
He lived with his parents in a one-bedroom apartment in Culver City, at the intersection of two major arterials, a half block from the San Diego Freeway. (He would live there until he graduated from high school.) I moved to a new town at the start of fifth grade. We kept in touch for a few years, reuniting the summer "Star Wars" came out. We saw it together. Shortly after that, we lost track of each other.
After graduating from high school, he wrote me a letter. We arranged to visit, got reacquainted, promised this time to stay in touch, but had by then become adults who were mostly strangers to each other. It was many years later, during an unplanned, serendipitous visit — I was passing through California, driving from Florida to Seattle to start a new job, and looked him up — that something permanent and unexplainable took hold and we became true friends again.
That, too, was when I found out something else I had never known: Tony was among a class of people we had come to call “illegal immigrants” a pejorative disguised as a formal definition. The label is at best imprecise. When used, it is often a lazily-reasoned, emotional reaction to fear or resentment.
Without saying so exactly, the institution of journalism agreed.
Recently, the Associated Press announced it would drop the term “illegal immigrant” from its industry-standard style guide. The Los Angeles Times did the same, upping the ante by also banning “undocumented immigrant” from standard practice. The AP’s rationale was grammatical — an act is illegal, not a person. The basis of the Times’ reasoning was accuracy — neither term consistently and accurately describes the situation of the people assigned to those labels, the paper contended.
Tony was the kind of kid the DREAM (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) Act is intended for. He excelled in school and wanted to attend college. His parents were not of great means.
The federal DREAM Act provides conditional residency status for non-resident minors, with a path to permanent citizenship through military service or completion of a college degree. Supporters cite its potential economic and social benefits, an amnesty program for motivated immigrants who did not knowingly break any rules when they entered and stayed in the country. Opponents generally base their objections on two principles: that it rewards and encourages the circumventing of rules, and that this is not a worthwhile expenditure of scarce public resources.
About a dozen states, including Washington, have drafted their own versions of the DREAM Act, which provide for tuition assistance and other financial aid for qualified immigrants who want to go to college. For reasons that have been detailed on this website, Washington’s DREAM Act never came to a vote, missing a key deadline, and dying in committee.
Technically, the state legislature can still revive the proposal, bringing it back for a vote any time during the current session. Supporters believe that can still happen, but the current political sentiment does not favor it. Washington’s DREAM Act is in limbo and will probably remain so for the foreseeable future.
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