"Undocumented" Book Stirs Intense Ambivalence, but Not for NYT's Liz Robbins

By Jerry Kammer on October 27, 2015

One of the most impressive aspects of Dan-el Padilla Peralta's memoir Undocumented is that it provides a poignant look at the world of the "dreamers". These are illegal immigrants whose problematic status is usually the result of their parents' decision to ignore U.S. immigration law. The dreamers yearn to be fully enfranchised in American society, which, as the Wall Street Journal noted in a profile of Padilla, sends "a cacophony of messages" to those who break immigration law by allowing them to stay and providing a range of benefits while leaving them subject to deportation.

The dreamers are the most sympathetic of the "undocumented". I think they should be granted legal status in our country, where many have spent most of their lives and have been educated under what the Supreme Court has declared to be a federal responsibility. And since Padilla is himself not only a dreamer, but also a gifted scholar of impressive accomplishment, I was predisposed to root for him as I began the book. Having finished it, I am glad he is now on a path to citizenship.

But I join Marcela Valdes, who declared in her Washington Post book review that it made her feel "intensely ambivalent". Valdes observed that, while the book "is clearly intended to bolster arguments in favor of undocumented immigrants like himself, [it] provides as much ammunition against them as it does in their support."

In 1989, Padilla's parents decided to come to New York on the advice of doctors in the Dominican Republic who told them that the U.S. medical system could provide better treatment for his mother's gestational diabetes, a complicating factor in her pregnancy. As members of the Dominican middle class, they were able to present themselves as firmly rooted in their home country and thereby convince a State Department visa officer that they were unlikely to overstay their visitor visas.

But overstay they did, though Dan-el's father became frustrated with his illegal status and decided to go home. Dan-el's mother, however, decided to stay in order to give her two boys — including her newborn son who became a citizen by birth — the chance to get a U.S. education.

As the mother of a citizen, Maria Elena Peralta was able to receive a host of benefits, including health care for her newborn, bimonthly welfare checks for food, and a subsidized apartment in a low-rent building operated by the City of New York, which even paid for their new beds.

Padilla writes about all this this matter of factly, in a style that conveys the reality that such taxpayer-funded generosity is commonplace in the world of illegal immigrants in New York. His mother is far from reluctant about claiming what she can. At one point she complains to the city employees who were showing them the apartments that they could make available to the family. "Mom was upset because the apartments she was being shown didn't meet her standards," Padilla writes. He reports that that as she met with caseworkers "she tried to make her expectations clear. I'd translate."

In her interview with Padilla for C-SPAN, New York Times reporter Liz Robbins made no effort to draw him out on the exasperation that many Americans feel about entitlements that benefit people who have no right to be in the country.

That exasperation has stoked Donald Trump's presidential campaign, a reality that may explain Robbins' avoidance of it. But she is keenly attuned to Padilla's outrage that he lived for years in legal limbo even as he was embraced by the Ivy League.

Robbins is a rather typical New York Times reporter. She herself is an Ivy Leaguer, a cum laude graduate of Cornell. In 2014, the Times reported that she had married Ricardo Boris Reif, "a manager and editor at the Spanish-language news service of the Associated Press in New York". He graduated from a Venezuelan university and holds a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia.

Robbins, I venture to say, is a citizen of the world, a post-national cosmopolitan. The world of struggling middle-class Americans who are sick and tired of Washington's inability to stop illegal immigration and have rallied behind Donald Trump is beyond her privileged, Upper West Side frame of reference.

Robbins is not predisposed by background or temperament to engage Padilla about this passage in which he expresses his outrage with the "anti-immigrant zealots" who want to enforce immigration law: "I wanted to ask them 'What if the laws don't make sense? What if they don't take into account the kinds of experiences my family had gone through? What if the rules are simply wrong?'"

It would not occur to Robbins to ask questions like these: "What is it about laws against overstaying visas that is simply wrong? What if the laws are the effort of a sovereign nation to bring fairness and order to a system rendered chaotic by mass illegal immigration? What would be the consequences of the open immigration he advocates? Does he think the taxpayer-funded benefits his family received are an incentive for more illegal immigration? How can the United States maintain the social safety net for the most needy Americans if our laws make it available to people who have no right to be in the country?"

If you expect a New York Times immigration reporter to ask such questions, I have a few words for you. They come from a 2004 column by Daniel Okrent, the Times's first public editor. When it comes to coverage of social issues, Okrent wrote, "if you think the Times plays it down the middle ... you've been reading the paper with your eyes closed."


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