Ruben Vives, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, just won a Pulitzer Prize for an investigative report exposing corruption in the suburban Southern California town of Bell. City administrators there had been illegally swelling the city coffers so as to be able to pay themselves salaries of nearly a million dollars per year—until Vives and his colleague exposed the situation, which led to the arrest of eight individuals on corruption charges. Vives’ Pulitzer and the work that merited it serve as an important reminder of the potential for contributing to society that is inherent within each human being made in God’s image—including within undocumented immigrants.
You see, Vives was himself undocumented for most of his childhood. Like many others in our society, he was brought to the United States as a small child. By the time he was seventeen years old, he was much more American than he was Guatemalan—except for in the most formal sense of his documents.
Fortunately, and unlike most undocumented students, Vives had a mother who had been able to become a US citizen. What’s more, his mother’s employer, Shawn Hubler, a reporter at the L.A. Times, went out of her way to try to help Vives’ family, consulting with an immigration attorney on their behalf and ultimately helping Vives to obtain a green card through his US citizen mother within days of his eighteenth birthday. Hubler and her husband, who had both been employees of the L.A. Times, also helped Vives to get a job at the newspaper, where he quickly rose to be a reporter—and eventually to be a Pulitzer Prize winner.
If Vives was still undocumented, though, it’s almost certain that he would not have won the Pulitzer, and quite likely that the corrupt City of Bell officials could still be embezzling millions of dollars from taxpayers.
There are many other young people like Ruben Vives with similar potential to contribute to our society, but they are limited by a lack of legal status—even though they did not themselves make the decision to come unlawfully to the United States. Only God knows who these undocumented students might have the potential to become: one perhaps the researcher who discovers the vaccine for AIDS, another the evangelist who leads many to faith in Jesus, one the author of a great novel, still another the educator who inspires a future generation to excellence. Without legal status, though, without access to higher education and without a Social Security number, their potential goes unrealized. Without a change in law, most will end up in the same sort of low-wage jobs that their parents hold, in industries accustomed to looking the other way when presented with a fraudulent Social Security card (employers of jobs requiring higher education and paying higher wages are much more likely to comply with employment authorization laws).
A bill that would have made it possible for many of these undocumented students to earn legal status, the DREAM Act, failed in the US Senate last December, with many legislators and voters concerned that somehow the bill would be too costly. But the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office analysis suggested that those concerns were baseless: in fact, the bill would actually have reduced the federal deficit by $2.2 billion by 2020. That’s because, as columnist Michael Gerson observes, these undocumented kids are “not just mouths but hands and brains.” When allowed to realize their potential, undocumented kids would contribute greatly—not just through increased tax revenue (because college educated workers earn much more income, and thus pay much more in taxes, than high school dropouts), but also in a plethora of other, less quantifiable ways.
This shouldn’t surprise those of us who believe in the Bible. These immigrants, after all, are human beings made in the very image of God (Gen. 1:27). They were made to work and care for God’s creation, endowed with a spark of that same creative spirit of the Creator in whose image they were designed.
Theologian Justo Gonzalez argues based on the biblical story of Joseph that we would do well to view immigrants not as a drain on our economy, nor even merely as the objects of ministry, but as actors in God’s redemptive work, with much to contribute. Joseph—with God’s help—saved the society of Egypt, using his keen mind to both predict a famine and to develop a strategy to survive it (Gen. 41). Who knows which of the approximately 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from high school in the United States each year might, if given the opportunity to develop their God-given potential, be the next Joseph—or the next Ruben Vives?
Matthew Soerens is the co-author of Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion & Truth in the Immigration Debate (InterVarsity Press, 2009) and the US Church Training Specialist at World Relief. His blogs appear here on Mondays.
Please note that the views expressed do not necessarily represent those of everyone associated with G92 or any institutions with which the blogger may be affiliated.
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