Monday, November 28, 2011

The Joaquin Luna DREAM Act

This story makes my heart hurt.

Joaquin Luna, a high school senior in California, committed suicide on Friday. He wanted to become an engineer to provide a better life for his mother, but realized that his status as an illegal immigrant made that impossible. Despondent over the failure of the DREAM act to pass, he dressed up in a suit and tie, said goodbye to his family, and shot himself in the head.

Any parent knows, intuitively, that the death of a child is the single worst thing that can happen. My condolences to his family, and to all who knew him.

I’ll concede upfront that it’s impossible to know everything that was going on in someone’s mind. Many people face obstacles and disappointments and don’t respond the way he did.

But it’s hard not to admit that he had a point. That’s what makes the story even more wrenching than so many others.

The DREAM act offers legal status to people who came to this country illegally as young children, conditional on their attainment of a college degree or on performing military service. It gives people who simply came with their parents a chance to attain full membership in the society in which they grew up. Since many of the people covered by the act came across the border as toddlers or young children, the United States is really their home. K-12 districts are required to educate these kids, so many of these kids go all the way through and graduate, only to hit a wall at the end of high school.

I recognize that there are complicated issues around adult immigration. But around kids who come with their parents, I have a hard time seeing it. Joaquin saw, correctly, that he was essentially confined to a lower caste through no fault of his own. He got the message -- again, with some warrant -- that the United States didn’t really want him. And since he wanted so badly to be here and to work hard for his family -- values that, in other contexts, we claim to hold -- he just couldn’t accept a life sentence to being the working poor.

It’s fashionable lately for people with highfalutin’ degrees to ask whether college is necessary. But on the ground, it clearly is. Yes, student loan debt is a serious issue, but the basic truth still holds that you’re economically better off with a degree than without one.

Yes, there should be economically viable alternatives for people who don’t go to college. But that category shouldn’t be decided by the time a kid is six years old. The way to tamp down the student loan bubble isn’t to ban brown people from college; it’s to get costs under control and restore subsidies through progressive taxation.

Joaquin Luna was, I’m sure, a complicated, three-dimensional person. It would be a mistake to reduce his suicide to a simple political statement. But it would also be a mistake to ignore the message that he was apparently trying to send. He saw that his adopted country was willing to visit the sins of the father upon the son, and the burden was too great for him to bear. Now a family is grieving, and a country has lost a driven young man cursed with insight.

I hope that when the act comes up again -- and passes -- it bears his name. Let the Joaquin Luna DREAM act ensure that we never consign anyone to a lower caste because he followed his parents here as a child.