A few months ago, my colleague Lisa Riordan Seville and I were working on an entirely different story — on immigrants who serve in the U.S. military — when a source told us we should look into the thousands of undocumented students serving in U.S. JROTC programs.
The story highlighted some common ground between immigration reform advocates and the U.S. military. Pentagon officials, faced with a dwindling supply of qualified recruits, have embraced versions of the so-called DREAM Act because it would offer a pathway to citizenship for undocumented students who want to enlist. But some have questioned the military’s willingness to embrace the bill, citing questionable tactics by the military to recruit young low-income people of color.
But that was not an issue we found on the minds of the “Dreamers” at Phoenix Military Academy, on Chicago’s South Side. They just wanted to be able to choose whether to enlist in the military, go to college, or find a good job with a real Social Security number.
“If (the military) was an option,” Darci Keyser, one of Phoenix’s guidance counselors, told us, “every single one of them would sign up. Because it’s an option. Because they would be productive. Because they would be part of society.”
We saw the lists Keyser kept in her drawer, indicating class placement: Clustered in the top 10 students in each class were the undocumented, indicated in red marker.
At the top of the list was Francisco Peralta, 17, whom we had been following around with a camera for two days. He and Phoenix’s other undocumented students have spent countless, tearful hours in Keyser’s office this year.
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Francisco invited us into his home to speak to his parents, both of whom were undocumented. We paged through a binder full of his awards and citations, acceptance letters to colleges. He showed us a photograph of him and his now 13-year-old sister Jacqueline. In the photograph, Jacqui is an infant. Because she was born here, she is an American citizen. Francisco, then just a little boy, was born in Mexico but raised in America. The legal difference between them didn’t matter much then, but now things are more complicated.
Francisco’s mother was just waking up to go to work at a factory. It was around 5 p.m. She told us how proud she was of her son, using the word frustrated to describe what it felt like to watch him struggle.
Then his father, who asked that his name not be used, came home from working a roofing job. He wore jeans splattered with paint and dust, and collapsed onto the couch. Francisco’s younger siblings scrambled onto his lap, and he turned on “Spongebob Squarepants.”
No matter what happens to Francisco’s dreams of becoming a scientist or serving in the military, his parents will still be proud of him. He will be the first in his family to graduate high school.
The next morning Francisco woke up around 5 a.m. to go to school. He walked the 15 or so minutes through the breaking dawn, along the edge of busy Western Avenue, to the bus stop.
He found a seat and pulled out the book assigned to him by his Advanced Placement English teacher — “Crime and Punishment.” The best thing about that book, I told him, is that the main character commits the crime in the beginning, not in the end.
“Like the ‘Tell Tale Heart,’” he said.
“Just like that,” I said.
Francisco is a good kid, but of course, good kids don’t necessarily mean good policy. Politicians and advocates on both sides say “it’s complicated.”
As in the book, Francisco committed the crime (albeit unintentionally) in the beginning of his story. But who are the victims of that crime? Some people say that it’s us — the natural-born citizens, the millions of people still struggling to find honest work in this country. They also say the rule of law suffers, when those who break the law are not punished.
I watched two Hispanic women board the bus, faces painted with exhaustion, probably either going to work or heading home. I thought about what his sister Jacqui had said the night before. She talked about her fears. How she’s afraid her parents, and her brother, will get deported and leave her alone.
Her other fear, she said, was that everything Francisco had worked for would turn out to be for nothing. That was something Lisa and I heard over and over, from kids, parents and teachers.
I watched Francisco read quietly and I felt a little bit of that fear. That if things didn’t work out for him, he may find himself in a perpetual limbo — and the thousands of other good kids in his position might too. That next year, after he graduates at the top of his class, he’ll be riding the same bus. Half-asleep, maybe reading a book, but out of his uniform, on his way to a minimum-wage job.
That would be his punishment. Maybe we are all victims.