Young “Strangers” in a hostile land?

My Aunt married an immigrant from Peru who became a US Citizen by volunteering as a young man to fight for this nation in World War II.

Uncle Jack was a hard-working, tall, athletic, and distinguished looking man but his Latino accented English and facial features invited discrimination from Nativist Americans.

Jefferson wrote that “that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

About ten years later, the promise of this declaration shrunk in the context of our nation’s constitution, hollowed out by excluding coverage of “these rights” to slaves, to women and, basically, to persons without property.

In the course of our nation’s history, despite our declaration that “all men” are “equal” and “all men” enjoy “unalienable rights,” we violated the promise of our independence.  One need only consider the Indian removal politics of the 19th Century, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Japanese internment camps of World War II, and that, in 2002, we instituted a Special Registration program which required all men from predominantly Middle Eastern and Muslim countries to register in person with the federal government.

Our nation’s policy, as judged by our conduct, is that you are “equal” and enjoy “rights” if we, as a nation, declare you to be “equal” and if we define your presence in this nation as “legitimate.”

In classic literature, particularly among the Greeks, “strangers” are treated as guests when visiting another nation-state, and to do otherwise is dishonorable.

There is a long tradition in the religious literature to treat strangers as native.  In the Old Testament, it is written, “The strangers who sojourn with you shall be to you as the natives among you, and you shall love them as yourself; for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt” (Leviticus 19:33-34).  In the New Testament, Jesus instructs we should welcome the stranger (Matthew 25:35), for “what you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto me (Matthew 25:40).”  The Qur’an says that we should “serve God … and do good to … orphans, those in need, neighbors who are near, neighbors who are strangers, the companion by your side, the wayfarer that you meet, [and those who have nothing] (4:36).”  In the Hindu scripture, Taitiriya Upanishad says, “The guest is a representative of God (1.11.2).”

If we could distinguish among the “strangers” in our law, is it not the easier case to consider how we should treat the young who were brought to the United States from a foreign land, and are undocumented through no act of their will?

We have some guidance regarding how we should treat undocumented students when it comes to K-12 public education.   In 1982, in Plyler v. Doe, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Brennan, speaking for the Court, rejected a Texas statute that refused public funding for undocumented students, and that required them to pay tuition.

Brennan concluded that undocumented students – even if unlawfully present in the United States – were “persons” and thus within our constitution’s equal protection clause that provides no State “shall deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

The Court found classifying these undocumented children as a “suspect class,” and denying them benefits afforded other children, could not be justified, and imposed a lifetime hardship on a discrete class of children not accountable for their “disabling” status.

Justice Brennan explained how, “Imposing … condemnation on the head of an infant is illogical and unjust.  Moreover imposing disabilities on the … child is contrary to the basic concept of our system that legal burdens should bear some relation to individual responsibility or wrong doing.  Obviously, no child is responsible for his birth, and penalizing the child is an ineffectual – as well as unjust – way of deterring the parent.”

We cannot ignore the fact that there are about 65,000 undocumented students graduating yearly from American High Schools.  They discover for the first time when they apply to college that, unlike K-12, the door to higher education may be barred to them.

I am a product of a Jesuit education (Fordham) and it’s because, going back to John Carroll who founded Georgetown University (almost as good as Fordham), first and second generation immigrant students gained access to higher education.

Twenty Five Jesuit University Presidents across America re-affirmed last week that “Catholic Social Teaching makes clear that issues of social justice, the common good, the dignity of every human person regardless of birthplace, and the right of people to migrate and seek social advancement are divinely inspired.”

On March 7, 2013, these Jesuit University Presidents announced, “We oppose public policies that separate human families living peaceably in our midst, especially those involving students and/or minors, and urge all citizens to recognize and support those inhabitants of our nation who seek to contribute more fully to civil life and the common good through education and personal development.”

It is high time we treated strangers, young and old, as having the unalienable rights that we insisted belonged to us all when we asserted our independence.