Upward mobility is common for the millions who come to the US. But there’s a lot more to the story.

Some of the world’s most vulnerable people arrive at the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego every day.

That’s why she decided to take her college graduation photos in the same hot vegetable fields in Coachella, Calif., where she has worked with her parents since she was in high school.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce on Thursday came out in support of bipartisan legislation that would address the immigration crisis at the southern board, which was introduced by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.).

Originally published by The Washington Post

Anatol Tony Surak’s death this month came as a shock to his close friends and family, especially since the 90-year-old resident of a Maryland senior living facility had tested negative for the deadly coronavirus twice.

But Surak, who had been diagnosed with pneumonia-like symptoms before testing positive for covid-19 just days later, died of complications that arose from the virus on June 1 at Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Center in Rockville. That shock, his family says, has never really worn off.

In addition to taking her uncle’s life, said Alex Hewett, 51, of Baltimore, the coronavirus took from his family the ability to properly mourn.

They said goodbye in a pair of tearful video chats, singing Amazing Grace and praying together.

It was just really sad, Hewett said. And then he died, but we couldn’t really say goodbye; you can’t anymore. There was no funeral. He was buried, but no one could really be there.

It marked an end to the life of an Eastern European immigrant who had made the most of his American Dream, said Tony Surak Jr., his son. The elder Surak had worked for the federal government and took pride in the opportunity it gave him.

He emigrated from war-torn Belarus to a displaced-persons camp in Germany, fleeing Soviet and Nazi occupation during World War II. In 1950, Surak sailed to the United States on the USS General C.C. Ballou as part of a refugee resettlement program in the war’s wake.

His family settled in the South River borough of New Jersey, southwest of Staten Island, a hub for Belarusian immigrants in the postwar years. He graduated from Rutgers University in 1959 with a degree in mechanical engineering and, a year later, married another Eastern European immigrant, Angela Mascicki. The couple remained happily married until Surak’s death more than 60 years later.

Surak worked for a while at the Johns-Manvilleasbestos manufacturing facility in Manville, N.J., and the Singer sewing machine factory in Elizabeth. But Surak Jr. said his father wanted to leave New Jersey, so he took a job with the Library of Congress and moved his young family south to the nation’s capital.

Tony and Angela Surak rented from a small boardinghouse near the Supreme Court before settling in Gaithersburg, Md. He worked on Capitol Hill most of his life, Surak Jr. said, and made the solemn, early-morning commute every day without complaint.

He slugged through on the Metro every day, first thing in the morning to work on Capitol Hill, Surak Jr. said. He would wear his little American flag pin.

He had a unique gift for language, his son recalled. He was fluent in multiple languages, including Belarusian, German, Polish, Russian, Ukrainian and English, and he could translate among them.

It was a useful skill at the Library of Congress, where he was part of a team of language experts reading and cataloguing technical books. He was an analyst in science and technology in the library’s air information division. At the height of the space race, the Library of Congress loaned his skills to NASA as it first put men on the moon in 1969. He would go on to help lead delegations of Russian nuclear scientists in the United States before he retired at 74.

Surak was a devout Catholic. In his free time, he would golf and volunteer with the Boy Scouts.

He was a quiet man, not one to talk about himself and probably scarred somewhat by the trauma in his youth, Surak Jr. mused.

He was a survivor, his son said.

He and his wife had been living together in the assisted-living facility for a little more than a year when the coronavirus pandemic struck the region.

For now, the family takes solace in the incredible life he lived, the things he did and the people he touched.

He was a hard worker and a humble giver, they say. Hewlett, Surak’s niece and goddaughter, said she doesn’t have many memories of him smiling, and yet he was so full of joy.

There was this gentleness and kindness, she said, that radiated from him and filled the room.

Read more:

Originally published by LA Times

It was open house at Heron Elementary School, and inside a bustling auditorium, fifth-graders created a living wax museum of Famous Americans, decked out as pop icons, sports stars and legends from their history books.

Along with a miniature Barack Obama who tried not to fidget as he stood behind a makeshift presidential lectern, there was an Abraham Lincoln in a top hat (and checkered Vans), a bushy Albert Einstein and at least two sharpshooting Annie Oakleys.

Not far from a robed Sandra Day O’Connor stood an 11-year-old girl with long, brown hair, black slacks and a blazer. Like the others, she stood on a chair and remained motionless until you pressed a paper printout of a red button at her feet. Then she spoke:

Hi, I am Blanca Rubio. The reason I am a famous American is because I am an assemblywoman, but not only that, it’s also because just recently my sister, Susan Rubio, got elected into the state Senate. Now we are the first sisters to ever be elected into the state Capitol.

The speaker was Nadia Rubio, and she was portraying her mother.

Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio

It seemed appropriate to share the story of Blanca and Susan Rubio in a school, because the lawmakers consider themselves teachers at heart. Animated and energetic, they tend to wave their hands when they talk, a habit from their days keeping children engaged.

In conversation, the Rubios suggest they are carbon copies of each other. But those working closest to them see a difference in styles: Blanca, 50, outgoing and blunt, is quicker to attract a circle of friends at events. Susan, a year younger, is a little more reserved and always meticulously organized.

Nadia, during the wax museum and in class last spring, recounted the sisters’ surprising journey:

When I was 6, I got deported. I remember men in uniform coming up to my parents and terror in their faces.

Blanca and Susan were born in Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican city opposite El Paso and then home to many braceros, field laborers granted temporary permits to work in the U.S.

Their father was a bracero, and when the program ended in 1964, Sabino Rubio continued to cross into the U.S. legally but was no longer authorized to work. He did so regardless, helping build highway overpasses across Texas. He later moved his wife and then four children to Winnie, outside Houston.

We were fortunate enough that we had Mom and Dad. We recognized back then we were privileged in that respect.


Blanca, then 6, and Susan, 4, were güeritas, light-skinned with blonde hair, and the only Spanish speakers in their classes. The teacher didn’t really know what to do with me, Blanca recalled. She would put me in a corner and give me coloring pages.

She slowly picked up English on the playground, but when she tried to sit with other students in class, the teacher sent her to the corner. She couldn’t speak well enough to advocate for herself, nor could her parents.

It was the first time I experienced discrimination, Blanca said. I could understand. I just couldn’t speak the language.

At a carnival in 1975, two immigration agents approached their father. The memories of family members differ on what happened next, but one thing is clear: They were deported.

The parents recall being granted permission to return home to pack before driving back to Juarez.

The children say they did not go back and left everything behind – the reason for a gap in their baby pictures. Susan is certain of it because she had kept a bottle filled with dimes and quarters, almost $10.

Everyone would buy candy, and I decided to be the responsible one, she said. I had a goal. I was going to save and fill it up.

She never got to spend the money.

Rubio family


I really look up to my parents, and without them, I wouldn’t be here right now.

Blanca says she will always remember their return to the United States: Aug. 16, 1977, the day Elvis Presley died. She was 7, and the country was in mourning.

They rode a train to downtown Los Angeles, where their father had already arrived after crossing illegally into the country again. Sabino had saved enough as a carpet factory worker to bring in his family, all without papers: his wife, Estela; with Blanca, Susan and her twin brother, Robert; and his youngest daughter, Sylvia. Brian would be born 15 years later.

In those days, Sabino often worked nights, taking three buses to the factory in the City of Industry. Estela became a housekeeper.

Their Pico Rivera neighborhood grew rougher with the years, with gangs and shootings. Yet, what the sisters remember most is how close they were as a family.

We were fortunate enough that we had Mom and Dad, Susan said, recalling how friends from fractured families often spent the night at their one-bedroom apartment. We recognized back then we were privileged in that respect.

Money was scarce, but there were weekend trips to the beach, picnics in the park. Our mother wouldn’t let us buy anything during the week, Sylvia said. But when dad got paid on Fridays, they would take us to the market and we could each pick out one little thing.

Blanca, as it often happens for the oldest child in immigrant families, assumed the role of protector and translator, even though she remembers hating her accent and dreading talking to clerks or ordering pizza. When her parents were away or at work, she enforced curfews. At Christmas, she wrapped the presents.

A sweeping immigration bill passed during the Reagan administration allowed Sabino and Estela to achieve citizenship. Then the U.S.-born Sylvia, though only 4, technically served as sponsor for her siblings. Blanca and Susan became citizens in 1994.


I was a teacher for 16 years, and I was also on the school board and water board.

It took Blanca time to find her calling as a teacher.

After a high school counselor dissuaded her from applying to universities – Oh, honey, you’re just going to get married and have children – she enrolled in community college but soon dropped out and began working at a statewide association for human resources professionals. Colleagues, seeing her potential, persuaded Blanca to return to school.

Blanca and Susan wound up graduating from East Los Angeles College on the same spring day in 1997, and they later completed master’s degrees at Azusa Pacific University. While at ELAC, Blanca had complained so much about a local water agency that a friend – the mayor of Carson – gave her a cliched motivational speech: You can’t complain if you’re not going to do anything about it.

Not long after that, her sister Sylvia gave birth to a son at a hospital next door to an elections office. Blanca took it as a sign and went inside to register as a candidate.

She became the youngest member to serve on the Valley County Water District board. As she dipped into the world of local politics, Blanca found an unexpected mentor, former Baldwin Park Mayor Jack White, whose family she and Susan had met at a city park when they were girls.

Blanca was working as a human resources specialist at the Baldwin Park Unified School District when, in 2000, administrators faced a teacher shortage. She thought back to her struggles as an English learner and the unhelpful counselor. Here was the chance to wield the influence, and power, of la maestra.

Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio

Three years later, White helped Blanca win election to the school board, and she had her first taste of a bitter political battle when she was accused of double dipping for simultaneously serving on two boards. She won a civil case over the matter but did not seek reelection to the water board.

While Blanca forged her way into politics and fell into teaching, for Susan it was the other way around.

Susan had long wanted to be a teacher. Once she became one, she saw how teachers were at the front lines of every social, emotional and economic issue facing families. At Blanca’s urging, she decided to attack those problems through public service. She was elected Baldwin Park city clerk in 2005, and four years later she successfully ran for City Council.

I could always tell which kids in my class had not eaten, which had slept in their cars, which were having issues at home, Susan said. I became more involved in my community because I was an educator.

But there was one student neither Blanca nor Susan could prevent from falling through the cracks. Unlike his sisters, their brother Robert was moved to a special education campus when he failed an English aptitude test upon their arrival in California. He grew emotionally withdrawn over the years, and eventually he and the family lost touch.

I was always trying to protect him, and I feel like I failed in that duty, Blanca said. In speaking up for others, the sisters often say, they’re speaking up for him.


In 2016, I was elected into the Assembly, and just recently, my sister Susan Rubio got elected into the state Senate.

It took time for Susan to find her voice.

Once again, she followed the lead of Blanca, whose rise to the Assembly coincided with the disintegration of Susan’s marriage.

In 2013, Susan married Roger Hernandez, an assemblyman and respected former West Covina councilman. When he was termed out, he and Blanca urged Susan to seek his old seat. Susan declined, so Blanca decided to run herself.

By then, the marriage was already on the rocks; Hernandez had filed for divorce just a year and a half after their wedding. By 2016, when Blanca launched her campaign, Susan obtained a temporary restraining order prohibiting Hernandez from stepping within 100 feet of her.

Court documents and witnesses in a divorce court hearing described Hernandez as a jealous man who often struck Susan and accused her of cheating, once wrapping a belt around her neck, another time holding a knife above her head. Photos in a thick court file show a hole punched in wall at their home and Susan’s bruised arm.

Political opponents accused the Rubios of hypocrisy, saying they had stood by Hernandez when another woman leveled abuse allegations against him years before. Critics insinuated Blanca knew about domestic violence but said nothing because it would hurt her candidacy, a charge she calls unfounded.

Susan says she was afraid to speak up because she was afraid of him.

State Sen. Susan Rubio

Few political allies came to the sisters’ defense as Hernandez denied the claims. He dropped out of a race for Congress a month after a judge ruled there was enough evidence to issue a yearlong restraining order.

Blanca won the seat, even though she did not have the state Democratic Party’s endorsement. She had billed herself as a moderate not beholden to the party establishment, hoping to attract independents and Republicans in the district encompassing East Los Angeles and parts of nearby cities. She also benefited from help by the California Charter Schools Assn., which spent close to $400,000 to further her candidacy.

Over the next year, the #MeToo movement rattled the Capitol as more than 140 women – Susan and Blanca among them – signed an open letter denouncing a pervasive culture of sexual harassment in politics. The flood of other women’s stories emboldened Susan, and in a 2017 op-ed in the Sacramento Bee, she wrote: I had an image of what a battered victim would look like, but somewhere along the way the image transformed into my reflection. Victims are everywhere. Look and you will find us.

Then, in 2018, a state Senate seat in the San Gabriel Valley became open. Susan ran and won.


Now we are the first sisters to ever be elected into the state Capitol.

The Bennets and Berryhills. The Sargents and McCarthys and Calderons. The list of brothers who served in the California Legislature goes on. But at Susan’s swearing-in ceremony in December 2018, Senate leader Toni Atkins (D-San Diego) heaped praise upon Sabino and Estela Rubio, the only parents in California history who can say they have had two daughters in the Legislature.

Charter schools, oil companies and business associations have been the sisters’ prominent donors. Some Latino Republicans say the Rubios seem a powerful alternative to a party that has turned off many Latinos with hateful rhetoric against immigrants.

Intern Michael Amster and state Sen. Susan Rubio

At a fundraiser hosted by the Baldwin Park Women’s Club, Laura Santos, a trustee at Mt. San Antonio College, said she was cheering the Rubios on but was concerned they did not seem to share her progressive values. We’re going to need to nudge them in the right direction, she said with a wink.

The sisters say they are trying to represent all of California, with actions informed by personal experiences that mirror those of their constituents. When Blanca launched her Assembly campaign, a political consultant asked her, What’s your story?

She struggled to answer. She was a single mother of two, Blanca said, a teacher for 16 years, an elected official. The consultant wasn’t satisfied. What’s your story? he insisted.

Blanca started at the beginning: the family’s deportation, their struggles with English, their efforts to stay afloat. She then realized why their history hadn’t struck her as remarkable. The reason it hadn’t been a story was because, in Los Angeles, everyone had the same story, she said.

Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio visiting Mt. San Antonio College


I am very proud of what I have achieved, and I would hope to make a lot of great bills in the future.

Blanca had six bills signed into law her first term and doubled that number in 2018. Her legislative record last session was mixed.

In October, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed her Assembly Bill 1590, which would have created a nonrefundable tax credit for first-time home buyers who are low- to moderate-income taxpayers. But Newsom signed AB 1645, which increases educational resources for high school and college students living in the country illegally.

Susan, in her first year, had at least nine bills come into law. Like the legislation proposed by her sister, her bills addressed issues with which she is intimately, even painfully, familiar. Newsom signed Senate Bill 273, which gives victims of domestic violence more time to report abuse. Another successful bill, SB 316, requires that institutions of higher education print the phone number of the National Domestic Violence Hotline on student ID cards.

Blanca and Susan have settled into the ebb and flow of legislators who shuttle between their districts and Sacramento, where 11-year-old Nadia and her brother, Aiden, attend school. The sisters bought a house with walls of pearl white stucco in a northwest suburb, and Blanca enjoys seeing her children so at ease among the kind of powerful people who intimidated her as a girl.

The Legislature will reconvene Jan. 6, with Blanca representing the 48th Assembly District as Susan serves the 22nd Senate District. They’ll be forging separate paths but, once more, still together.

Ulloa, formerly of The Times’ Sacramento bureau, is a special correspondent.

Read more:


Originally published by LA Times

Here is a new rags-to-riches American Dream story that’s a little different:

A Greek family is forced to share its modest home with enemy Nazi soldiers for three years during World War II.

After peace returns, the family’s teenage son bolts to America by himself.

He works as a farmhand – does any kind of job he can find – and eventually becomes a very rich land developer.

His daughter grows up to be California’s first elected female lieutenant governor.

I learned from my father that being involved in the democratic system was an incredible privilege, says Lt. Gov.-elect Eleni Kounalakis. People in Greece couldn’t be involved in their own government if they were just villagers.

Kounalakis, 52, won her first race for elective office last week, beating state Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-Azusa) by a comfortable margin. Entering the weekend, she was leading by roughly 12 percentage points.

Kounalakis’ dad, Angelo Tsakopoulos, was 5 when enemy paratroopers stormed the small mountain village where his family lived in 1941.

Six Nazi soldiers took over the family’s second floor. The parents and six kids were restricted to three downstairs rooms. We slept on the floor, Tsakopoulos says.

Germans occupied the region to beat back Greek guerrilla resistance. Tsakopoulos’ father was a resister. Most of all the village males were, he says. There was a lot of fear.

He remembers that a German patrol once went into a tiny village nearby to quash resistance activity.

A villager shot one of the Germans, Tsakopoulos says. The Germans captured 18 males and hung them. They were going to do the same in our village, but a local doctor who had studied in Germany talked them out of it.

When the occupation started, there was a sunset-to-sunrise curfew. Anyone out at night would be shot on sight, he says. Later, people were restricted to only two hours outside – noon to 2 p.m.

Finally, the Allies invaded Italy and France in 1944 and the Germans retreated. Tsakopoulos was 8.

Those were happy days, he says.

That kind of traumatic childhood is almost unfathomable to a U.S.-born kid. How did it affect him?

Eventually you become philosophical, he says. You read history. Understand life and war, the importance of mortality. The misery we cause each other. It wasn’t just that war. Afterwards, we had a civil war as bloody as the second world war. War is horrible.

He heard people talking about America. Relatives wrote letters about how America was paradise – the place where there was no hunger.

At 14, Tsakopoulos talked his parents into allowing him to leave by himself. He had an uncle in Lodi, near Sacramento. He traveled on a steamship and arrived in New York Harbor in 1951 on his 15th birthday, sailing past the Statue of Liberty.

Everyone went outside and people were crying louder and louder and I said: ‘Why in the world are they crying? We’re here,’ Tsakopoulos says. I didn’t understand the story about the gift from the French…. We could see the city and skyscrapers and all that. It was very, very exciting. It was beautiful.

In Lodi, he lived in a detached garage on a farm. He sold melons on the street. They called him ‘the melon boy,’ Kounalakis says. He attended Sacramento State College, as it then was called, working as a waiter.

He used to cater at the governor’s mansion when [Gov.] Pat Brown was there, Kounalakis says. One night Jerry [Brown] was home, upstairs studying for the bar exam.

Tsakopoulos became a real estate agent, then a land developer and eventually fabulously wealthy. He has donated generously – tens of millions of dollars – to Democratic candidates, including his daughter. Of course I wanted to help my kid.

Why give to politicians? Greek culture is to get involved in your community, he says.

But for Tsakopoulos and his daughter, the culture has extended far beyond the local community to White House candidates, including Bill and Hillary Clinton. The family’s money and Kounalakis’ grunt work for Clinton campaigns landed her a U.S. ambassadorship to Hungary when Hillary Clinton became secretary of State.

Father and daughter poured nearly $13 million into her lieutenant governor’s race. But she resents anyone saying daddy’s money bought her the office.

Kounalakis says she had a hard-working, smart campaign. She met with voters in all 58 California counties. Near the end, 350 volunteers texted more than 1 million women, pointing out that she was endorsed by former President Obama and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).

She’ll have little power as lieutenant governor. But she’ll sit on the UC Board of Regents, the Cal State board of trustees and the State Lands Commission, which regulates coastal waters. In her texts and TV ads, she promised never to vote for a tuition hike, to protect the environment and strive for a better working economy. She’s a former president of her father’s development company.

She has paid political dues – as a staffer for the state Democratic Party, working on three presidential campaigns and serving as delegate to five national conventions. You can’t be much more of a party activist than I am.

Kounalakis has the feistiness and energy to carve out a meaningful role as lieutenant governor, if anyone can. It’s in her genes.

I wonder how many other potential achievers of the American Dream are now being blocked from entering the country.

Read more:

Originally published by The Daily Beast

Ilhan Omar is almost all the things Donald Trump has demonized and demeaned rolled into one person. Omar, for starters, is an outspoken woman. Clearly Trump, who has ridiculed  the #MeToo movement, called women who accused him of sexual misconduct liars, just called Omarosa a dog, and defended men who were physically abusive to women like his former aide Rob Porter, doesn’t stand on the side of women who speak out.

Omar is also black and born in Africa, a place Trump has referred to as a shithole. Add to that, not only is she from Africa, Omar is from Somalia and is Muslim, meaning if she had been trying to come to America when Trump was president, his Muslim ban would have barred her, as Somalia is one of the seven countries on Trump’s list.

But on Tuesday, Omar did something historic. She won the Democratic nomination for Congress in Minnesota’s heavily Democratic 5th district. That means come January, Trump will almost assuredly have to deal with this outspoken, hijab-wearing, very progressive, Muslim Somali refugee as a member of Congress. Ahh, karma.

Omar’s win, though, is far from the only historic victory we’ve seen this primary season. It seems almost every primary day another person from a community Trump has demonized or even discriminated against wins a Democratic nomination. For example, in Vermont on Tuesday, Democrats nominated the first openly transgender woman to be a major party’s gubernatorial nominee in Christine Hallquist. That victory is sweeter given that Trump is trying to ban transgender Americans from serving in our military.

It’s never been easier to see which party is on the right side of history.

But the story of the 36-year-old Omar may just be the most compelling. She was born in Somalia, but at eight years of age, a brutal civil war drove her family to flee. The Omars next found themselves living in a refugee camp in Kenya-you know, the place Trump claimed Obama was from. After four years struggling to survive in a Kenyan refugee camp, Omar became another entry in the American tale of immigrants coming to the country in the hopes of a better live as she moved in 1997 to Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Most refugees are focused on just surviving in America. As the son of a Palestinian immigrant father who was a refugee, I can attest to that first hand, as I watched my Dad work two and three jobs when I was a child in north Jersey simply to make ends meet.

But Omar did more than just focus on surviving. At 14, she became an interpreter for Somalis at the Democratic political events in Minneapolis where she first fell in love with American politics. She went on to serve the community in various roles, from vice president of the Minneapolis’s NAACP to senior policy aide for a Minneapolis City Council member.

Omar’s next step was to seek office, vying for a seat in the Minnesota House of Representatives. And here’s where, ironically enough, her and Trump’s paths not only crossed but have since become intertwined. Here they both were in 2016, a Somalian, Muslim refugee on the same ballot as a man who made demonizing Muslims, and especially Somalis, a cornerstone of his campaign.

In fact, just days before the November 2016 election, there was Trump in Omar’s very town serving up more fact-free fear-mongering about Somalis to his base, declaring: Here in Minnesota, you’ve seen first-hand the problems caused with faulty refugee vetting, with very large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state without your knowledge. Trump then added, Everybody’s reading about the disaster taking place in Minnesota.

Both Omar and the anti-Muslim Trump won their respective elections. But their connection didn’t end there. Shortly after Trump was sworn in, he attempted to implement the first version of the Muslim ban that included Somalia. Omar, who had just recently been sworn in to her seat in the state legislature, was instrumental in organizing a rally of over 2,000 Minnesotans to oppose this bigoted ban.

And a few months ago, when Congressman Keith Ellison announced his intention to give up his congressional seat to run for Minnesota Attorney General, Omar jumped into the race for Congress in large part because of Trump. As Omar explained, the Trump administration’s politics of fear was her impetus to run for Congress.

Indeed, just this past weekend, Omar was forced to contend face to face with another Trump connection, this time in the form of a Trump loving anti-Muslim bigot who crashed her campaign event and accused Omar of being tied to terrorism. But neither Trump nor the hate-filled people he has emboldened could stop Omar.

Now Omar and Trump’s paths appear destined to cross again.  But to be clear, Omar’s run wasn’t just about Trump. She is a true progressive, championing issues from Medicare for all to getting big money out of politics. That’s why she secured the endorsement of the leading progressive groups from MoveOn to Justice Democrats to the Twin Cities chapter of Bernie Sander’s Our Revolution. This helps explain why Omar’s race Tuesday wasn’t even close despite running against other former and current elected officials, with Omar winning with 48 percent of the vote, besting her nearest competitor by 18 percentage points.

Omar was also joined last weekend on the campaign trail by another Muslim American, Rashida Tlaib, who won the Democratic congressional nomination in Michigan’s 13th district last week and who is running unopposed in November. That means a veritable wave of Muslim women is coming to Congress in 2019! OK, it’s not a wave, it’s still only two, but up until now there has not even been one.

How much of an impact Omar can have in Congress is anyone’s guess. But her victory, along with people like Tlaib and the other historic firsts in the recent Democratic party primaries, makes it clear that the Democratic Party truly reflects what America looks like today and will look like going forward. In contrast, the GOP increasingly looks more and more like Trump. It’s never been easier to see which party is on the right side of history.

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Originally published by CNN

I am an American.

I’ve lived the American Dream — a life as a citizen of these United States, nurtured by parents who provided me opportunity and the freedom and courage to dream beyond boundaries.

As a child, I rode my bike in my neighborhood and played until bedtime. My family ate dinner at the table together, camped and vacationed at Disney World. The values that make me an American were instilled in me during those formative years: love, equality and a strong work ethic.
My parents saw Islam as way to bring those foundational values into all aspects of their lives. They made sure they were the bedrock of our family. A police officer and a public school teacher, my father and mother put in the work to make my childhood better than their own. It was their mutual appreciation for the power of athletics that led me into sports.
The modest dress of my faith made fencing an ideal choice, but took me on a path I couldn’t have imagined as a 12-year-old picking up a fencing sword for the first time. A black Muslim woman, I attended Duke University. It was only 150 years ago men, women and children who looked like me lived under the yoke of slavery in North Carolina, and here I found myself walking onto Duke’s campus because of my academic accomplishments and skill with a saber.

Years later, standing on an Olympic podium in Brazil, seeing my country’s flag rise above me, I felt an overwhelming sense of triumph, defying society’s limited expectations, breaking barriers placed in front of me because of the color of my skin and my faith. At the highest level of sport, I proudly represented, competed and medaled for my country.
I love my country, but I don’t recognize it today. Not in the Supreme Court ruling upholding the travel ban. Not in a Supreme Court nominee potentially engineered to undo reproductive choice, access to health care and the Russia investigation. Not in the family separation and detention policy. Not in our move to initiate trade wars and rally against breastfeeding and the World Health Organization. Not in the abandonment of allies and basic decency in how we treat other humans.
And, just as importantly, not in the lies and daily attacks on our constitutional rights that this administration carries out under the cover of Twitter fits.

When the travel ban directed at majority-Muslim countries was announced, I wrote a letter to President Donald Trump. Now that his administration has put its “zero-tolerance” policy on immigration into effect, I must speak out against trying to make immigrants the enemy of Americans.
I visited the border in California on July 1 and saw what was happening firsthand. It was a disturbing education into what the administration is doing to other human beings.
My time along the border, seeing the real-life outcome of this administration’s policies toward immigrants, has led me to this call. A nation that holds itself as the beacon of hope and freedom in the world to all those who yearn for a better life, for more opportunity, cannot tolerate the way this government is treating other human beings.
The challenge of any democracy is how it exercises its power. Today the scoreboard is scary: Trump administration: 0. Supreme Court: 0. Congress: 0.

The only check we have left is us. The people.
The idea of America is, in no small part, sustained by the way we delegate our day-to-day governance to people who have the integrity and knowledge to act in a way consistent with our values, interests and Constitution as they make policy. Here now, we are witnessing failures that seem almost too overwhelming to engage.
This administration does not believe in facts and obfuscates the truth — whether it’s the inauguration crowd size, the difference between would or wouldn’t, or Russian cyberwarfare. This administration has deemed athletes un-American for peacefully exercising their most fundamental freedoms. This administration has declared war on the media and decries the work of a free press as “fake news.”
Our democracy lies in the balance. And yet, like every epic sporting story, it is when it all seems lost that we mustn’t give up. The victory will not be one heroic maneuver but will be the sum of long hours of practice and injuries, discipline and attention to detail.
So, America, now is our time. We must stand together — not just on any one issue we feel affects our own families the most — but on the broader conviction about what it means to be an American. With solidarity we can hold this President — and his enabling Congress — to account.

Doing that means that we can’t be satisfied when we stop separating families only to hold them in jails. It means that a Muslim ban by any other name is still a Muslim ban and therefore unacceptable. It means that removing due process for anyone is a threat to us all. It means the power of our flag and our anthem is strengthened by protest, by athletes and others, and affirmed in our engagement in the conversations it drives.
It means that my Olympic story doesn’t begin on the medal stand but in the often painful work when no one is watching. So too, when it comes to our country.
We have to show up for the real work, and not just when the cameras are on: against the ban, at the border and more. We need to affirm that asylum is a fundamentally American idea, not a criminal act.

We have to stop family detention, and divest from contractors that participate in it. We have to show up for the work that leads to a reformed criminal justice system and investment in community policing.
And we have to carry with us an understanding that access to civic participation is unevenly distributed and under threat. We now have a Supreme Court whose decisions on voting rights suggest an intention to make it harder to vote.
We have to show up to ensure that America’s true voice can be heard — the voice that includes people for whom 15-hour workdays make voting a huge sacrifice and people who have paid their debts to society but are blocked from the ballot by their criminal records. Voter registration and voting have never been more important.
In doing that work in whatever way we can, as often as we can, we renew the truest and most vital American reality, that our community is bigger than our religion, national origin or race.

We have to show up for the real work — together. In solidarity. It is our civic duty, it is our moral duty and it’s the only way we win.

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Originally published by The Washington Post

My father is a dreamer. He dreamed of America, of having his children grow up here, even though it meant trading a decent existence in Peru for a harder path. My mother dreamed, too, mainly of returning, which we did, often enough that, in whatever place I was, I dreamed of the other.

It is the lot of the immigrant to straddle borders of all kinds at all times; we gaze back with nostalgia and relief, we look forward with boundlessness and insecurity, we strive to belong even when we get the hint. It’s impossible to be just one thing at a time, writes Univision’s Jorge Ramos in his new book, Stranger, a blend of memoir, analysis and manifesto. Immigrants understand that they are many things at once. We don’t have a solid, immutable identity. Over the span of a single day, I can feel Latino, Mexican, American, foreigner, and newcomer.

Ramos dedicated his slim book to The Dreamers, my heroes, a bow to the students turned activists seeking legal protections for themselves and others like them who entered the United States unlawfully as children – who arrived here, as the obligatory qualification goes, through no fault of their own. But if not their fault, whose? The blame usually falls on their parents, who dared to dream on their behalf. Those elders are the sacrificial generation, Ramos writes, often unable to legalize their own status but quietly staying so their children might prosper.

The Making of a Dream, journalist Laura Wides-Muñoz spends a decade following this generation of young activists as they attempt to sway Washington and public opinion. These teens refused to become ghosts, to hide as their elders had, she explains. Yet their cultural clout has yielded only legislative frustration and a precarious future, as the fate of an Obama-era program, known as DACA, protecting them from deportation has been enmeshed and postponed amid battles over government funding, court rulings and President Trump’s demand for billions of dollars to secure the U.S.-Mexico border.

I don’t know if the border is a place for me to understand myself, but I know there’s something here I can’t look away from, Francisco Cantú writes in The Line Becomes a River,a memoir of his time as a U.S. Border Patrol agent, guarding the same boundaries that his Mexican grandfather crossed long ago and that the American president now pledges to defend with a wall. Cantú’s understated yet searing chronicle mixes history, family, duty and dreams as well, except his are nightmares of violence and guilt.

Americans are dreamers, too, Trump declared in his State of the Union speech, slyly seeking to wrest moral authority away from the young immigrants claiming it. Together these works loom as floodlights over contested territory, illuminating immigration as a state of mind, a generational dispute, a legal battle. And they help show why, in the land of the American Dream, dreaming itself has become politicized, a partisan battleground over rights and self-definition.

It is ironic that the dreamers – now ranging from their teens to their 30s – would become tied in the public imagination to a proposal that arrived years ago but has yet to achieve full legal status. The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act has been around since 2001 and reintroduced, to no avail, on multiple occasions. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, launched in 2012 and set to end next month, has some 690,000 participants formally enrolled, a small slice of the total undocumented population, estimated at about 11 million. Yet its potential beneficiaries have become the face of America’s immigration debate. They are the young, the educated and the promising. Their early advocacy invariably featured caps and gowns.

It is an appealing picture but one that tends to crop out the nannies, the gardeners, the food service workers and, of course, the old. Even as he is inspired by the dreamers, Ramos worries about generational rifts. After many conversations with the Dreamers and their parents, I began to notice a certain sense of impatience among the Dreamers, he writes. Why had their parents remained silent for so long? Why did they not speak up and protest? Why didn’t they go out and fight for their rights?

Ramos knows something about such conflicts; he departed Mexico in 1983 at age 24, leaving not just an authoritarian government but an authoritarian father as well. But Wides-Muñoz probes deep into the dreamers’ relationships with their parents and often finds empathy and concern. One of her most memorable characters is Marie Gonzalez, who left Costa Rica with her parents in 1991, at age 5, eventually settling in Missouri. When Marie becomes one of the early Dream Act advocates, traveling to Washington, giving speeches and radio interviews, she is constantly asked about the plight of young people like her. A hard knot tightened in her stomach, Wides-Muñoz writes. Don’t forget about my parents, she wanted, but was afraid, to say. By centering solely on her own story, Marie felt as though she was betraying those she loved most. She survived a deportation order, but her parents didn’t.

The tensions surface not just within families but among activists. Older immigration advocates preferred comprehensive reforms over a law that would help only a particular cohort of the undocumented. Still, they grasped that the moral authority these young immigrant students wielded before lawmakers was unmatched. The dreamers, for their part, grew restless in their role. Increasingly, they felt as if the older activists viewed them as props, trotting them out to pull at the heartstrings and then sending them back to their seats, Wides-Muñoz writes. One longtime activist even encouraged Marie to cry in an interview, which she did, mainly out of anger and frustration. (Why did she need to show those officials weakness? she asked herself.)

Even the four dreamers who walked the 1,500-mile Trail of Dreams from Miami to Washington in 2010, in what became the movement’s signature action, found disillusion at journey’s end. They had gained national and international attention, winning the respect of many of the naysayers, Wides-Muñoz writes. Yet back in the nation’s capital, they were once again at the mercy of the Washington players.

The author also cites young immigrants who arrived too late, or too old, to be covered by a potential Dream Act. Alex Aldana, who had come from Mexico with his family at age 16 in 2003, grew to resent the attention lavished on the valedictorian types by journalists, activists and lawmakers. He wished he could see more young people like himself testifying in Congress, Wides-Muñoz writes, those who weren’t stars but who were working to support their families and contributing to the economy.

Even for those who would benefit from it, the Dream Act has been cursed by nightmarish timing. An early congressional hearing on the bill was scheduled for Sept. 12, 2001. During the Obama years, the proposal was pushed aside for health-care reform and fiscal stimulus, despite Barack Obama’s campaign promise – in an interview with Ramos – of an immigration bill during his first year in office. On the same day in 2010 that the Senate voted to end the don’t ask, don’t tell policy, which had barred LGBT people from serving openly in the military, the Dream Act fell five votes short of the threshold needed to be considered for final passage. More recently, Trump’s quest for a border wall seems to render the legislation even less likely.

Yet the Dream Act’s failures have in some way liberated the dreamers from the image that lawmakers and activists forced on them. Presenting the story of the perfect, well-mannered students hadn’t worked, Wides-Muñoz writes. Now they could just be human.


Humanity is the preoccupation of The Line Becomes a River Рrecognizing it, acknowledging it, salvaging it. After studying immigration in college, Cant̼ convinced himself that joining the Border Patrol would be one more step in his education, even as his mother warned that he would be absorbed by a system with little regard for people, that the soul can buckle in such a job. In his initial training sessions, a supervisor assures him that not everyone trying to cross the line is just another good person seeking honest work, that there are, as Trump would later put it, some bad hombres coming, too.

Did you ever arrest a narco? a friend asks him breathlessly. He did snag a few lower-level smugglers, scouts and mules, but mostly I arrested migrants, Cantú admits. People looking for a better life.

Cantú struggles to make those lives a little better even as he detains and processes border crossers, slashing their water bottles and ransacking their supplies to discourage them from going further. Cantú gives his shirt to a man who had lost his own and treats him to burgers on the way to the station. He warns two teenage boys not to attempt to cross the border again in the summertime; it is too hot and dangerous. He treats and bandages the blistered feet of a woman who had been left behind by group of border crossers because of her limp – a quitter, in the patrol’s parlance. Eres muy humanitario, oficial, she tells him. No, he says, looking down at her feet. I’m not.

After four years on the job, Cantú leaves it in 2012, but he finds it does not leave him. It’s like I’m still a part of this thing that crushes, he tells his mother. Later, while working at a coffee shop, he befriends an undocumented co-worker named Jose, who is caught by the Border Patrol after attempting to return from Mexico, where he had been visiting his ailing mother. Cantú takes Jose’s family – including the man’s young U.S.-born children – to witness his courtroom proceedings and to visit him in a detention facility. He helps Jose’s wife, Lupe, gather the paperwork needed for a lawyer to make a doomed case for prosecutorial discretion –  essentially, hoping that a judge will offer Jose a stay of removal.

Cantú suffers constant nightmares as the dissonance between his intentions and his actions, his impulses and his experiences, becomes hard to bear. He dreams that he shoots a man and his son. He dreams of a cave strewn with body parts. He dreams of men lost and wandering without food or water, dying slowly, he writes. I finally discover their bodies lying facedown on the ground before me, dead and stinking on the desert floor, human waypoints in a vast and smoldering expanse.

Still, a friend of Lupe’s thanks him, marveling at how Cantú once worked for la migra but now was helping. I smiled and nodded, wondering if that’s what this really was, if I was merely being driven to make good for the lives I had sent back across the line, Cantú writes. If I was seeking redemption, I wondered, what would redemption look like?


Trump launched his presidential campaign by branding Mexican immigrants as rapists and drug traffickers – they’re not sending their best – and he used his first State of the Union address to link immigrants with violent street gangs. Ramos spends much of the early portions of Stranger battling such characterizations, citing studies showing that immigrants commit fewer serious crimes than native-born Americans and contribute to the nation’s tax base. Ramos has also taken this fight directly to Trump, challenging his immigration proposals at a 2015 campaign news conference in Iowa and getting briefly tossed out for his troubles.

In her conclusion of The Making of a Dream, Wides-Muñoz takes solace in the notion that the dreamers have claimed, if not a legislative victory, at least a cultural one: that they are reshaping how Americans regard immigrants and redefining what it means to be American. And Ramos suggests that the Republican Party is running the risk of driving away Hispanic voters for generations to come. As U.S.-born Latinos reach voting age, they will never forget the fear and anxiety their parents endured. Though he writes that being Latino in America today means a life of persecution and discrimination, Ramos argues that long-term demographic shifts in the United States will end up overwhelming xenophobia, rejecting the radical extremist groups, and the United States can continue with its tradition of ethnic diversity, multiculturalism, and acceptance of immigrants.

Such visions must be juxtaposed with Ramos’s admission that he was entirely mistaken about 2016. I said, so many times and with such great confidence, that Trump would never make it to the White House without the Latino vote, Ramos acknowledges. But I was wrong. He points out that close to half of the 27.3 million Latinos eligible to vote in the 2016 contest stayed home. What happens in the Latino community is our own fault, he writes. It can’t be blamed on anyone else.

The authors suggest that Hispanics in the United States could be galvanized by the very aggression they encounter. We feel defensive because we are literally being attacked, Ramos argues, while Wides-Muñoz notes that, although most Latinos rate education and jobs as higher priorities than immigration policy, the vilification of their community is eliciting a deeper response, even in Latino families that didn’t have to deal with the immigration system.

After nearly four decades as a legal permanent resident of the United States, I became a U.S. citizen in late 2014. The 2016 election marked my first vote, one I cast with excitement but also a sobering sense of responsibility; my dreams were not just for me now but also for my young American children. Nothing ties you closer to a country than having your children born there,Ramos writes. Yet he knows that being an immigrant means having roots that ignore borders, and that often the best we can do is embrace the ambiguities, overlaps and commonalities. I’m from right here and I’m from out there, Ramos writes. And I’m not at war with myself about it.

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