As chatter on Capitol Hill again turns to immigration reform, I'm often reminded of my own immigrant ancestors, who were among the two million Jews that came to America from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1921. As was the case with my great-grandparents, most of these immigrants came in search of a better life and religious and cultural freedom — before the advent of immigration quotas in the 1920s. In their time, the borders were practically porous, with few limitations on legal immigration.
But after a series of increasingly restrictive immigration laws throughout the 20th century, those days are long gone. In its place, we have mangled, often arbitrary enforcement of a patchwork of laws where an immigration system should be. More than 11 million undocumented immigrants now live in the country, 1.4 million of whom are so-called "DREAMERs," young people between the ages of five and 30 who were unlawfully brought to the U.S. before their 16th birthday.
Hareth Andrade, 20, is one of these DREAMERs. Brought to the U.S. from Bolivia by her parents at the age of eight, Hareth has been undocumented ever since. But unlike many of her peers, Hareth has intentionally shared her story publicly, repeatedly urging Congress to pass the DREAM Act, which would enable most DREAMERs to obtain legal status and, ultimately, citizenship.
Hareth first gained national prominence several weeks ago when she read a rousing poem, "America," at the national AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles. Dedicating the poem to her father, Mario, who is also undocumented and is facing potential deportation in January 2014, Hareth brought the crowd to its feet with her searing portrait of America's unwillingness to realize the ideals of all of its people. "So let's talk, because/America is home," she said, "A land of dreams/for all dreamers."
Mario Andrade was overjoyed by his daughter's outspoken commitment to his future that he cried. "He was very grateful, because not everybody can stand up and talk about what they’re going through," Hareth said.
Hareth's AFL-CIO speech was a huge success, not only because it went viral on YouTube, but because it brought her to the attention of a national immigrant advocacy organization with an unlikely request. Aloe Blacc, the singer-songwriter behind the runaway hit "Wake Me Up," had recorded an acoustic version of the track and was looking for a young DREAMER to star in the music video, which would address immigration reform. Hareth was the perfect fit.
Even though she wasn't brought across the border as the video shows, Hareth's family was forcibly separated by a broken immigration system more than willing to tear families apart for the sake of uneven law enforcement. "Although my parents did not cross the border," Hareth said, "I still am the little girl who was separated by a border."
Hareth has high hopes for what the "Wake Me Up" video can achieve, which recalls America's long history with protest songs that stretches back to the civil rights movement and before. "[The video is] making the nation wake up to this reality [about immigration reform]," Hareth said. "It’s not a game, it’s not about politics; it’s about family. And the family unit is the basis of this nation."