Lucas da Silva, 25, grew up in New York City, on Roosevelt Island, a narrow slice of land in the East River underneath the Queensboro Bridge. He vividly recalls that day in middle school when the Twin Towers fell. Now he lives in MetroWest, and favors Jameson-and-gingers at a restaurant a short walk from home called Teak. He’s attending Valencia College, where he’s studying political science. He wants to go to law school. He’s a smart guy, well-spoken, ambitious – in other words, normal. Except for that one thing.
Da Silva’s an undocumented immigrant. If he were to hit a quick stretch of bad luck, he could be deported tomorrow to Brazil, a country he barely knows and hasn’t set foot in since he was 12. Indeed, that’s what happened to his father just a few years ago.
I relay his story here not merely to arouse sympathy, but because, as we enter a summer of what will assuredly be a heated debate over immigration reform, it’s important to remember that the policies we enact affect real people – decent people, as quintessentially American as you and me – in real ways.
They deserve more than our pity. They deserve a chance to live the American dream.
Until his 15th birthday, da Silva thought he’d have that chance. He had no idea he was here illegally. His parents, in search of economic opportunity, had brought him to the states when he was just 12 months old. He grew up here and speaks fluent English. The family had come here on a tourist visa and never left. (Da Silva’s younger sister, born on American soil, is a citizen.) When Lucas was young, his father landed a job as a chauffeur at the United Nations, which meant he could get a diplomatic visa.
In February 2002, the family moved to Orlando. His father had fallen in love with the area during a vacation the previous summer. But leaving New York meant that he could no longer work for the UN, which meant he no longer had a diplomatic visa, which meant he and his family (save Lucas’ younger sister) were here illegally.
The morning he turned 15, Lucas asked his parents to take him to get a driving permit. It was then he learned: He couldn’t. He wasn’t supposed to be here. He wasn’t an American. “I remember going back to my room and crying,” he says. “How am I not American?”
He hid this discovery from his friends, making up excuse after excuse for why he couldn’t get a driver’s license and a car like everyone else. His senior year, he met with his high school guidance counselor to ask about his options. For the first time, he opened up to her about his past.
“She basically told me I might as well get a job on a farm,” he says. After graduation, he got by working in construction and retail, low-wage jobs where his employers didn’t really care to look all that deeply into his background. He has a Social Security number, which he received when his family had legal visas.
His father, too, worked odd jobs, and like Lucas, paid taxes every year. Eventually, his father started his own pool-cleaning business. But then one day, about four years ago, he was pulled over by the cops while driving his truck, loaded with cleaning supplies, around town. The cops discovered that he didn’t have a license, then that he was here illegally. Lucas’ father spent two weeks at the Orange County jail and then 10 months at an immigration detention facility in South Florida before being shipped back to Brazil. Last year, he died on the operating table while having surgery for a blood clot. Lucas couldn’t go home to bury him.
Not long after his father’s deportation, da Silva became involved in immigration activism. It was there, from other undocumented immigrants in a similar situation, that he learned that he could indeed attend college (though he pays out-of-state tuition, about $1,000 a course, and is ineligible for federal loans or student aid). Last year, President Obama issued an executive order that essentially exempted undocumented immigrants who had come here as children and stayed out of trouble from the threat of deportation. Da Silva applied for deferred status. He’s still awaiting a work permit, but even if it comes it would only be temporary; he’d have to reapply after two years. The immigration bill currently in the Senate would allow him to become a permanent legal resident and, eventually, a citizen.
Today, da Silva is part of PICO United Florida, a network of churches that works on social justice issues. It was in that capacity that, this January, he went with a group to Washington, D.C., to lobby House members on immigration reform. One of them was Rep. John Mica, R-Volusia County, whom da Silva ran into by accident. Da Silva shared his story.
“Well, that was a horrible decision your father made,” Mica responded. Mica sympathized with da Silva over the loss of his father, and mentioned that his mother-in-law had recently passed. Then the congressman, who last year called Obama’s executive order “amnesty” that “reward[ed] those who abuse the law,” gave da Silva a souvenir coin, the kind you buy in the House’s gift shop. “I hope you feel better.”
“Mica’s a grandkid of an immigrant who came over here illegally,” says spokesman Alan Byrd. While he opposes “amnesty” for those who illegally came to this country, or “moving them to the front of the line,” he’s willing to look at proposals dealing with their children.
Da Silva says he’s hopeful that this will be immigration reform’s year, that the growing power of Latinos in American politics will force Republicans to act. I’m skeptical. Not just because of Washington’s poisonous atmosphere or because most House Republicans are in safe districts and only have to worry about a right-wing primary opponent. Not even because of the xenophobia permeating some corners of conservatism. (Witness the recent anti-reform study from the sadly influential Heritage Foundation, co-authored by a man who has previously argued that Hispanics are intellectually inferior to whites.)
But also because we too often look at these things as abstractions, as if the people our laws impact, by virtue of their circumstances of birth, are somehow less worthy of being called American.
Follow Jeffrey Billman on Twitter: @jeffreybillman