Meeting the Dreamers

There’s probably an unwritten rule about discussing religion and politics with colleagues and customers, especially right now. Well, there’s a reason for that: being a fiscal conservative and a social moderate in the South is not a good mix.

Because of the recent government shutdown being tied to DACA, immigration has been a topic of conversation at my office. The people I talk to (more like listen to) tend to recite conservative pundit talking points. They talk as if what they are saying are their own words, and any differing opinion is a ticket straight to hell. Frankly, it reminds me of when I was a teenager and we would sing Amazing Grace to the Coca Cola tune – same words, same meaning, just different cords.

To my colleagues, Dreamers are not Dreamers. They’re “illegals.” By a legal definition, they could be considered that. I just grin while listening to these conversations, though. And then, as politely as I can, I get up and walk away, knowing I’ll probably never be able to reason with them. I suspect, though, that if these pundit-echoing friends had spent time with immigrants they might feel differently.

Until my bus stopped at Fort Knox and I was greeted with “Move! Move! Move!”, I had never met an immigrant. Until then I hadn’t even thought much about immigrants. They weren’t exactly common where I grew up. But, there I was, 300 miles away from home, without my mama, and it was cold. The Drill Sergeant directed us off the bus and into the barracks. Basic training had begun.

I was a young Alabama farm boy with little knowledge outside the farm until then. I grew up shadowing my parents and grandparents as they row cropped and raised cattle. Once I was old enough, I began doing some of the work myself and worked on the farm until I graduated high school. My childhood was work, school, church, rinse and repeat. So, when I got to basic training, I was exposed to the fact that America wasn’t just white, black, and Christian.

In my platoon was a soldier from Nigeria. I met him the third day of in processing. He had me by a few inches and had broader shoulders than I did. I thought he talked funny—or was it me that talked funny? We were partners for dime drills where we learned to squeeze rather than pull the trigger of our M16s. At chow, we would talk about home. Even more than most soldiers, he liked talking about his daughter. He immigrated to the states with his wife and a young daughter in search of the American Dream and the opportunities that being an American affords people. He joined the Army to expedite his citizenship. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website, a solider may become a citizen after one year of service, but cannot be discharged for “other than honorable conditions” before completing five years of service and maintain his or her citizenship.

The conversations I had with him were the first I had with someone who wasn’t born in the United States. I was surprised then that our conversations were no different than the ones I had with anyone else in platoon. He showed me a photo of his daughter; I could see how proud he was of her. She was his anchor and the reason he had come to America, which was easy for me to understand.

My platoon mate was not a Dreamer. But he was an immigrant who had an opportunity to become an American citizen and did everything he could to do so. He left Nigeria in the midst of economic strife and political turmoil, essentially escaping to America to better care for his family. For him, joining the Army was the next logical step.

It would be another twenty years before I met an actual Dreamer. When I first met Lucas, he was still in high school. He served as a translator for his father while his father purchased a truck. I financed six or seven vehicles for his family members over the years, and each time, regardless of his relation to the purchaser, he was there to translate. Eventually, it was his turn to purchase a truck. Shortly after his nineteenth birthday, he, with the help of his father, purchases a year-old crew cab F150 from me. A few months later, he stopped by the dealership to have his oil changed. He told me that he had joined the Army “so I can become a citizen.” I was taken aback. I had no idea that he was not a citizen; that in fact he was a Dreamer. His English was excellent; his commitment to the country exemplary. He made me think of my former platoon mate—sacrificing for a country that wasn’t yet legally his.

Last month, as debates raged about whether Dreamers could stay, I encountered another Dreamer, Alex. A few years older than Lucas, he has already established a small business. He has a mortgage, a credit card, and an auto loan. In other words, he’s like most Americans and needed a truck for his business. While we had no problem selling him a truck, a problem arose when the sales consultant gave me the deal. As I examined the deal jacket, I discovered that Alex’s driver license was labeled FN (foreign national) with an expiration date of 2019. In our business, that limits the time we can finance a vehicle, meaning any loan could not be longer than 2019. Here I was, looking at the credit history of a young man that was an entrepreneur, had a significant down payment, and the means (income) to pay. The only thing holding him back was the fact that his documents expire in 2019.

Having gone through the sales process with Alex and Lucas, my teammates and I still clash over DACA recipients. They believe that if you are in America illegally, you have broken the law and are a criminal and thus any pathway to citizenship is nothing more than amnesty. Alex chose to be an entrepreneur—to live the American dream. In every cultural and political way, Alex and Lucas, and other Dreamers like them, have earned the right to citizenship. My peers, and many like them, take their citizenship for granted. They overlook the freedom they enjoy and feel entitled to insist on a particular outcome or behavior others who do not resemble them. What they forget are the service and the services that the Dreamers provide every day.

I look back over the past twenty-nine years since my time at Fort Knox, and a lot has changed. I arrived as a scared young man, but left with a better understanding of camaraderie, kinship and appreciation for family and friends. From my brothers and sisters in arms, I learned what it was to make a commitment to family and country. As much as any American, both Lucas and Alex embody these commitments.

In any event, these young people we call Dreamers were brought to America to enjoy a better life than the one their parents left behind. Turns out, my life before meeting any immigrants also guides my thinking on the questions of Dreamers. If we are truly a Christian nation—as I was told we were every Sunday in church for my whole childhood—would we not live by the words of Matthew 25:45: “… whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me”?

Jamie Holladay is a doctoral student living in Alabama. You can follow him on twitter @jamieholladay

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