Fabiola Santiago

This is why Americans should strongly support legalization of undocumented immigrants

President Donald Trump speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, during his address to a joint session of Congress.
President Donald Trump speaks on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, during his address to a joint session of Congress. AP

The dreadful morning after Donald Trump won the election, the representative of a Broward company showed up at my house to give me an estimate for pressure cleaning and painting. I was exhausted from mulling over election results late into the night. The man at my door also looked beaten. Worse yet, he looked like he had been crying.

Gilberto turned out to be the owner of the small family business — and the undocumented Mexican father of DREAMer children.

“I haven’t slept all night,” he said of the election. “I’m not as worried about myself as I am about my children. This country is their home. I’m most worried about my oldest son. He’s 18 and I had never seen him so angry and hurt.”

It was fortuitous that I met Gilberto the day after the United States so drastically changed course. Not a day of Trump’s fledgling administration has gone by that I don’t think about him and his family — and what Trump’s massive deportation orders and his ugly rhetoric mean to them: Living in fear. Unspeakable loss and separation. Seeing the rewards of their hard work disappear.

This is why Americans must reject the constant vilification of the undocumented — and support a pathway to legalization for these immigrants among us.

Up to now, Trump has seldom missed an opportunity to fan the flames of hate and suspicion and we’ve seen the terrible consequences. In his short time in office, a distressing wave of anti-immigrant and anti-gay sentiment, and anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim violence and vandalism, has risen. “You live in Trump country now,” a drunk man on a scooter told a Key West gay couple whose bicycles he rammed, knocking one to the ground.

That’s why it’s surprising — hard to believe, yet encouraging — to hear that President Trump wants to see an immigration bill pass Congress allowing undocumented immigrants who haven’t committed serious crimes to legalize their lives here. That would be a drastic and welcome shift in an immigration policy that so far has been driven only by the disparagement of immigrants, plans to erect a border wall, and deportations.

In his first address to Congress on Tuesday, among Trump’s guests were family members of people killed by undocumented immigrants — cases that are a rarity but high-profile in their communities and nationally. Trump has used them to justify his police-state immigration policies.

People like Gilberto, however, are representative of the humble, hardworking immigrant who despite all the obstacles stacked against him rises to embody the American Dream. Family members — like the cousin who speaks perfect English and coordinates appointments — pull together to make a little business succeed.

Their lives changed for the better after President Barack Obama extended protection from deportation, work permits and driver licenses under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and a companion program for parents (DAPA). They came out of the shadows and were able to own a pressure cleaning and painting company with all the bells and whistles of legality and insurance.

Perhaps this is what the xenophobes are afraid of, that people like Gilberto have tremendous energy and drive, that he chooses to rise. But it should inspire us all.

We can’t change the election. Too many in swing-state Florida dismissed the xenophobic messaging of Trump’s campaign and propelled him to victory, some hoping the billionaire real estate mogul would magically turn ethical and presidential, others happily casting a vote to reflect the bigotry they’ve carried in their hearts for years.

Will Trump’s last minute reveal on immigration at a meeting with network anchors before his big night in front of Congress hold true?

With Trump and the anti-immigrant company he keeps within his inner circle, it’s hard to say. He may have been trying to pre-empt the Democrats bringing immigrants as their guests to the joint session.

But just as encouraging as the president’s support for “a compromise bill” is that 72 percent of Trump’s own supporters and 80 percent of all Americans want a path to citizenship for immigrants who are in the U.S. illegally, according to a new McClatchy-Marist Poll. It’s not hard to believe when you consider how many industries would be affected by labor shortages.

Immigrants typically work in jobs Americans don’t want — digging ditches, tending to fragile elders, harvesting crops and keeping lawns green and trim — with hope in their hearts and cash in their pockets to live with dignity.

It’s not hard at all to stand in support of them.

I hired Gilberto on the spot that day. I trusted him to do the job while I was away in another city, and he didn’t disappoint me, a professional through and through. My house looked new. When it came time to collect payment, he didn’t want cash but a check as proof of payment for the both of us.

He’s a taxpayer like the rest of us.

That day when tears easily welled in his eyes, I tried to reassure Gilberto.

“You live in South Florida,” I said. “This community will protect you.”

Only I had no idea what a tall order that would be under President Trump.

Perhaps now, there’s a rare bit of hope in the president’s words.