'Those Immigrants…' and How We Change the Immigration Debate

This August, eleven years will have passed since I landed at the Miami International Airport as a young child. In the years that have gone by since, I went on to grow up and create my own story of success—the kind that oftentimes we hear when the “American Dream” is spoken of.

In a short matter of time, I learned to speak English, and later on, I was even able to perfect my French. I graduated from a Florida high school, and I am now pursuing my undergraduate studies. During that same time, too, I came to become what is known as a “Dreamer”- a young, undocumented individual who was brought to the country without a say.

I share those parts of my story not to place a focus on myself, but rather to shift the spotlight towards the strides that immigrants can make when the possibilities this land I am proud to call home are at are their disposition.

My story, too often though, is utilized as the prime example of what a “good” immigrant is. Seldom shared are the stories like those of my mother, who did everything from cleaning homes and facing abuse at the hands of exploitive profiteers to helping build a small business. Not many shed light on the stories of the migrant workers who are the arms and strength behind our agricultural industry, or the women who work in backbreaking construction, either.

To change the immigration debate, we have a duty to uplift the stories of those who build our America to be as great and mighty as we know it. For far too long, political expedience has inclined lawmakers to continue perpetuating a crisis that’s been building upon itself, rather than constructing long-lasting and effective solutions to resolve it.

As the Florida Legislature considers the implementation of a ban on so-called “sanctuary cities” statewide, it becomes more important than ever to ensure that the voices of those who will be affected are the voices that can be most clearly heard. All throughout the immigration debate, including when I visited Tallahassee to advocate in favor of immigrants, I have heard the phrase, “Well, you are not one of those immigrants,” from legislators and everyday people alike. I knew then and know now exactly who “those immigrants” are—the ones who simply haven’t been extended the opportunity to learn English and French and pursue higher education and become Rhodes Scholars or receive Pulitzer prizes.

In sharing this, I seek to uplift “those immigrants,” who include my mother and father and their friends who’ve shown me great kindness and love and faced their own struggles, and all of the other immigrants who do not have shining stories of glory and success to share, or big and powerful friends and voices to stand up on their behalf, but are nonetheless indispensable and valuable, too.

Legislative initiatives like HB 527 and SB 168 are hurtful, politically motivated and endemic to a debate in which those affected have not had a say. Instead of targeting hardworking mothers and fathers when they drive their children to school or attend Sunday worship, we should be seeking resolutions that will make our communities safer and stronger, and extend the opportunities of our beloved country to all of those who are deserving. Pushing families into the shadows, eviscerating their trust in government and threatening them with imminent separation is not good public policy.

There is a farce that must be struck down outright—the farce that a single man or group can do things alone, rather than acting as a village. That village includes the immigrants who make America truly great. Our country can be one of boundless opportunities for every man, woman and child, regardless of their background or what zip code they hail from, but only if we work in the spirit of kindness and community.

Originally from Honduras and a graduate of Bayshore High School in Sarasota, Oscar Portillo is currently an undergraduate student at University of South Florida, where he studies economics and political science. He will join the Florida Policy Institute in a policy presentation and panel discussion on the importance of expanding financial aid for Florida’s DREAMers at the Florida College Access Network Summit May 8, 2019.