#MoreThanALabel: Immigrant Stories Define What It Means to be American @lorellapraeli & @juansaaa

Originally posted on SocialWork@Simmons

In my experience, there is no issue that impassions people more than immigration. Why? Fundamentally, I believe it is because immigration is visceral: It is about our essence as individuals, as a people, as a culture, and as a nation. It is about where we have been and where we are going. What kind of a country do we want to be? Do we want to be a welcoming nation that opens its arms to people from all over the world, and from all walks of life, or do we want to turn our backs on those in need, and restrict critical opportunities for engineers, entrepreneurs, researchers, and scientists like Einstein, who was, by the way, a refugee?

I know which nation I want.

Let me tell you about two immigrants who inspire me. Two outstanding individuals who have taught me much about what it means to be an American.

Lorella Praeli

Lorella was born in Ica, Peru. At 2 years old she lost her right leg in a horrific accident caused by a drunken driver. Determined that their young daughter receive the best medical care available, Lorella’s parents brought her to the U.S. several times a year for treatment for her high amputation. Eventually the travel took its toll, and Lorella’s parents had no choice but to permanently move the family to the U.S. so she could receive the health care she needed. The family settled in New Milford, Connecticut, where Lorella’s aunt lived.

Lorella excelled at school but also endured cyberbullying because she was physically challenged, a Latina, and an immigrant.

But Lorella was not deterred. In high school, she became active with the Anti-Defamation League’s Names Can Really Hurt Us program and worked hard to promote bullying awareness and reconciliation.

Lorella went on to graduate at the top of her high school class and was awarded a full academic scholarship to Quinnipiac University, where she went on to graduate summa cum laude.

But despite her amazing accomplishments, Lorella was burdened by a secret. She was an undocumented immigrant — a fact she had learned when she needed a social security number to apply for college. Like so many other undocumented immigrants who have been brought to the U.S. as children, Lorella lived with the constant gnawing fear of arrest, detention, and deportation.

Yet she was not deterred. Lorella eventually went public as an undocumented immigrant in the DREAM movement, the heroic campaign to pass the DREAM Act, legislation that would provide a pathway to earned citizenship for undocumented youth. Lorella fought successfully for in-state tuition for undocumented students in Connecticut and went on to become Director of Advocacy and Policy for United We Dream, the largest organization of undocumented youth in the United States. While at United We Dream, Lorella was a driving force in the struggle that eventually led the Obama Administration to institute Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), which offers qualified individuals a temporary reprieve from deportation and a chance to pursue higher education.

In June Lorella became the Director of Latino Outreach for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaignwhere she focuses on issues of critical concern to the Hispanic community across the U.S.

She has only begun to fight for what she believes in.

Juan Escalante

Juan is the oldest of three brothers, and the son of Vilma and Saul Escalante. When they arrived in the country in 2000, the Venezuelan family settled in Kendall, Florida, a suburb of Miami.

Although they entered the country legally on intracompany transferee visas, the Escalante family, including Juan, became undocumented in 2006. An immigration attorney provided bad advice, leaving them without visas and green cards. Even though they followed the rules, the Escalantes found themselves without legal documents and without a way to legalize their immigration status.

Despite these obstacles Juan persevered. He studied hard in school, earned a 4.0 grade-point average and a spot at the top of his high school graduating class. Juan was accepted into numerous universities across Florida, some of which awarded him scholarships. However, because he was undocumented, Juan did not qualify for either in-state tuition or for the scholarships that he’d earned.

But Juan refused to be cowed by the unfairness of a broken immigration system. Adept at social media and other forms of online communication, he became an advocate for the DREAM Act. Juan developed innovative strategies designed to maximize the impact of young people on the national immigration reform agenda. He was instrumental in the public defense of countless unjust deportation cases, and focused his energy on lobbying and educational outreach.

Juan also made continuing his education a priority. He earned his associate degree from Broward College in 2009 and, with the encouragement of Florida State University President T.K. Whetherell, enrolled in FSU. There Juan became active in the Student Government Association where he helped pass resolutions highlighting the DREAM Act. In 2011 Juan graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science and international affairs.

But he didn’t stop there. In 2012 Juan, as a beneficiary of the DACA program, re-enrolled in FSU and, on August 8, 2015, earned a Master of Public Administration.

Today Juan is the Director of Digital Campaigns for America’s Voice, one of the most prominent immigration reform groups in the U.S. He frequently writes about immigration policy and provides cutting edge analysis on immigration issues to major media outlets, including the New York Times.

Promoting Immigrant Pride    

Lorella and Juan inspire me as do the thousands and thousands of immigrants with whom I have had the honor of working over the years.

When I think of immigrants, I think of research physicians in America’s foremost medical centers devoted to finding cures for life-threatening diseases such as cancer, cognitive heart failure, and AIDS. I think of engineers in Silicon Valley reining in the future with bold, creative ideas. I think of highly skilled workers in fields, farms, nurseries, hotels, and restaurants across this great land whose labor is the lifeblood of America’s economy.

In 1989, in his final address to the nation President Ronald Reagan described his vision of America as a shining city. He said:

[I]n my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, wind-swept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here.”

Reagan understood that America’s strength is its openness: its celebration of creativity and new ideas. We are a welcoming nation, and it’s our job to celebrate the immigrants who grace our shores, no matter how they got here.

David Leopold practices immigration law in Cleveland, Ohio. He is an immigration reform advocate and past president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. To learn more about Mr. Leopold, visit his website www.immvisa.com

About David Leopold
Past President American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), In-the-Trenches practicing immigration Attorney, Blogger, Activist, Photographer, Educator, World Traveler. All opinions are my own.

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