U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested Jonathan Chavez (inset) in a roundup of bus passengers in Florida. Sounds like something that would happen in a totalitarian country, Grisham says. (Inset: Facebook)
Editor's note: Information about votes on the DREAM Act has been corrected in paragraph 11.
I read a lot of letters about "illegals" and what we should do with them. Here's a story that may make the folks who write those letters feel a little safer.
Jonathan Chavez is in jail. He got picked up in Florida as he got off the bus. He rode the bus from Fayetteville, Ark., to visit his mom during Christmas break, and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrested him in a roundup of bus passengers. Yes, I know. Sounds like something that would happen in a totalitarian country. It happens here.
A little bit about Jonathan so you know why he's such a threat to us.
When Jonathan was young, his family brought him to Rogers, Ark. They entered legally on a tourist visa, hoping to obtain work visas. Jonathan's father found a good job, and the family settled. His parents are now lawful permanent residents, but that didn't happen before Jonathan turned 18. So he's undocumented. He can be arrested getting off a bus.
Jonathan graduated from Rogers High School with straight A's and earned a scholarship – first to Northwest Arkansas Community College, then to the University of Arkansas, where he qualified for the Honors College.
Jonathan must pay out-of-state tuition. That fee has blocked many undocumented graduates of Arkansas high schools from being able to afford higher education.
He is a genius, says one of his teachers. He has a gifted, natural voice and can sing in any style. His teacher, Janis Yoes, says he always does more than expected in voice studio. He has a knack for explaining things to younger students and helps them in their work. He is two semesters away from earning his degree.
A few weeks ago, classes started on the Fayetteville campus. Jonathan wasn't there. He was in jail in Florida, waiting for his hearing. He wears an orange jump suit and blue shoes. But he's thankful that he's in a nice Immigration and Naturalization Service facility. At least he wasn't sent to the dreaded lockup in Louisiana, where a lot of people picked up in northwest Arkansas land.
In jail he read and studied his Bible from 5 a.m. to sundown. He was in five Bible groups and had been translating the sermons on Sunday. He was witnessing to drug dealers and criminals and seeing changes in their lives. He said, "I'm seeing God work in so many ways."
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The university wishes students like Jonathan could pursue their education and enter school under the same tuition and requirements as their Arkansas high school classmates. Honors College Dean Bob McMath said undocumented students at the University of Arkansas seem to exemplify the American dream: "Hard working, family-oriented, optimistic."
The university urged our lawmakers to pass the DREAM Act, which would give these good students a path toward citizenship. Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln voted to end the debate on the bill, while Sen. Mark Pryor voted against cloture. The Republican filibuster killed the bill.
Since Jonathan is unlawfully present, he is not eligible for adjustment of his status, according to his attorney. When a visa is finally available for him, he will be required to complete the process at the consulate in Peru, and his departure will trigger a 10-year bar on his return to the United States. We'll lose one of our most promising young people. It's a broken and unjust immigration system.
Jonathan is undaunted. He's like other undocumented students I've met. Hopeful. Optimistic. Enthusiastic. His friends say his greatest quality is that he is an encourager.
He's the one that encouraged Maggie Bates and others to continue to run in the cold and snow when their group trained for a marathon. She was at a summer camp where he worked with at-risk kids and was named "Counselor of the Year."
She said, "He doesn't have anything, but he's continually serving others." He's got lots of friends, including 550 of them on the Facebook page "Praying for Jonathan Chavez."
That's Jonathan Chavez. One of those "illegals" you read about. I wonder: Will you really sleep better knowing he's behind bars? Or deported to Peru?
Me? I'm praying for Jonathan Chavez, who was released on bail and awaits a hearing Feb. 17.
"When foreigners reside among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigners residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God." (Leviticus 19:33-34)
Lowell Grisham is rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Fayetteville, Ark.