Two Americans, two very different stories

I’d like to tell you two stories that make up one very sad tale.

A young man came to this country in 1989 when he was 10 years old. He was brought here by his parents who immigrated from the former Soviet Union. They came as political refugees – granted a visa and permanent residency. During the Cold War, coming to the U.S. as a refugee from a Soviet country fit within the political battles of the era. The U.S. was willing to accept such immigrants.

This young man grew up here, went to school, got good grades, was a model student. He graduated high school near the top of his class, and was accepted to a good university. He went, got his degree, and worked a professional career making a good salary and enjoying career success.

Another 10-year-old kid came to this country at almost the exact same time. It was the Cold War, but he was not from a Soviet country. His parents’ immigration here served no political ends for the U.S., and so he didn’t have an easy way into the country. His parents came here without a visa, without proper documentation, because they had no other economic options in a country that shares a border with the U.S.

His parents brought him here, put him in school. He went, got good grades, was a model student, and graduated at the top of his class. He was accepted at several major, prestigious universities and offered full scholarships. But he didn’t know he was undocumented. When the universities found out, they took away all his scholarship offers. He was left with no future – no educational one, no career one, nothing. The U.S. was the only home he knew, having grown up here. He spoke English better than his parents’ native tongue. But he was relegated to second-class status in the country he thought was his own.

This young man was left hopeless and devastated. He turned to drugs and alcohol to numb his pain. He fell into severe depression that almost spiraled out of control. But he found his way back. He went to community college because it was all he could afford. He took all the classes he could there. He retook some of them, for lack of anything else to do. He started working for unscrupulous small business owners who were willing to take advantage of his undocumented status by treating him poorly, paying him little, and offering him no benefits. They got his brains and labor, he got mistreated. But he kept his mouth shut and hoped for something better.

Eventually, he transferred to a local university (one far below the level of the Ivy League schools that had accepted him some five years earlier). He couldn’t pay the tuition himself, but by then his immediate family was able to help him pay for it. He got his Bachelors degree. As a graduation gift, his parents surprised him with the citizenship documents they had finally been able to get (through a merciful, one-time amnesty program enacted by Ronald Reagan, though it was still a 20-year process). His application for legal residence was now fast-tracked and granted a year afterwards. He went for his Masters and got it.

Ten years after graduating high school, he was finally able to work. But because he had not attended the prestigious schools to which he was originally accepted, his work prospects and earnings prospects have not yet met his potential. He still struggles and strives, but is making a little more than half what the first young man – the one from the Soviet Union – has earned at his early career peak.

These are true stories of two people who exist.

This is a tale of two Americans. Both are Americans, whether we like it or not. They are here and not going anywhere. But one American, because it was politically expedient and for no virtue of his own, was granted all the benefits of being an American. The other, through no fault of his own, was denied those same benefits and was relegated to second-class status. He will likely pay the price for the rest of his life, if in no other form than psychological scars.

This is among the biggest travesties of modern American life. There is nothing fair or right about this. It is un-American. And it must end.

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