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Lucas da Silva is the poster child for immigration reform

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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

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