Thursday, July 02, 2009

Saving an American Dream: An Open Letter to President Obama

Francisco DaSilva is being deported.

The immigration lawyer who helped him secure his green card eleven years ago turns out to be a scammer and a crook. Homeland Security busted the man and now all his clients are being kicked out of the country. So Francisco DaSilva has to go.

This is an appalling miscarriage of justice, a tragedy -- and an arbitrary vandalizing of the American Dream. Because no one could be more American than Francisco. I’ve known him for more than twenty years and he has always been an icon of what the concept of America means to millions of people in hundreds of countries around the world.

He came to Nantucket from Brazil in 1986, determined to make a better life for himself, using the tools that hardy immigrants have always carried: determination, hope and an unlimited capacity for hard work. I’ve never met anyone who worked harder than Francisco. He started putting in long hours for his father’s San Paulo construction firm when he was nine years old. By the time he was working as a housepainter here, his days routinely clocked in at fifteen hours. He got to the job site before dawn and left long after sunset. In his spare time he built things for our boss, for free: a rolling cart to carry paint supplies, a set of elegant drying racks for the paint shed where we coated trim stock. Every spare penny went back to his family in Brazil. Throughout these years of relentless grueling labor, Francisco was always easy-going, funny, helpful, charming. He knew wild stories of Brazilian street life and extravagant legends of upper class crimes of passion (I’m still haunted by the jealous adhesives magnate who glued his wife and her lover together naked while they slept); he told us those stories and heartwarming stories of his large rowdy family, and he showed me tricks of the trade (“Push the putty into the hole and slide the putty knife under your thumb” “Try cutting-in using the back bristles of the sash brush – they bunch up and you can draw a clean line.”) with a generous good humor that made me feel we were a private fraternal order of tradesmen.

But of course Francisco wasn’t really a painter. He had been trained by his father as a carpenter and soon he was working for one of the premier builders on the island. I was disappointed to lose his unflagging energy and good humor on the job, but those drying racks should have been a give-away, Eventually Francisco got married, got a dog, found a decent place to live, got himself a lawyer and a green card. All the while he was working from four in the morning to ten at night, seven days a week. He went out on his own and for more than a decade he paid good wages to a large crew. He paid every penny of his hefty tax bill every year with a charming naive pride, a kind of raw, unfinished patriotism that jaded penny-pinching American natives don’t quite understand. But Francisco felt the connection, he knew where his money was going. Paying his taxes was an act of patriotism for him, a victory and a vindication. Sometimes I felt he would have been glad to underwrite the whole government, single-handed.

In all those years he ran afoul of the law just once. He got a late night speeding ticket, and he paid it the next day. Apart from that one slip, he did everything right. He was more than a model citizen. To me he was America itself, a man who had come here with nothing and devised a vivid American life, turning himself into a trusted, respected member of our small diverse community.

Now that’s all going to be taken away – including all the money he put into Social Security for his retirement – because he chose the wrong lawyer. With his usual indefatigable energy, Francisco has struggled against this Kafka-esque verdict, talking to ever more high ranking and evasive Immigration officials and then the people at Homeland Security who really control his fate. They required proof that he had been employed as a carpenter in Brazil. He gave them boxes and boxes of family business records – invoices and contracts and tax returns. But the company folded twenty years ago and the Brazilian government only keeps business records on file for ten years. So there was no official validation and Homeland Security came to the bizarre conclusion that this meant Francisco had invented his father’s business and falsified all the paperwork. Anyone capable of perpetuating such an exhaustively detailed hoax should be given citizenship instantly and signed up with the FBI as a consultant of criminal fraud. But of course he didn’t perpetuate a hoax – he just worked for his family’s business. A few phone calls to any of its thousands of customers would verify Francisco’s paperwork. No one bothers to make the effort, though; and this absurdity stands.

Francisco built a Senator’s summer house here a few years ago. The Senator’s lawyers told him the same thing the bureaucrats at Homeland Security told him: there was nothing he could do, no appeal he could make, no way he could reverse the decision. One cubicle dweller remarked with a cynical laugh that the only person who could over-ride Homeland Security was President Obama himself.

The Senator’s lawyer said the same thing, without a speck of humor or the shadow of a smile. He didn’t mean, “Write to the President”. He meant “Give up”. And Francisco has given up. That’s why I’m writing to you, Mr. President. The America that would callously deport this man is not your America. It’s not the America we wanted to revive when we voted for you. It’s a cruel bureaucratic paranoid America that befouls its own legacy in the name of senseless fears and institutional procedures.

You’re the only one who can fix this, Mr. President.

You’re the only one who can save this particular American dream of hard work rewarded and citizen ship earned. Don’t let Francisco DeSilva be exiled from the country he made his home, a home he created with faith and thrift and ingenuity and hard work, every aspect of our national character, every quality we admire, every virtue we salute when we pledge allegiance to the flag.

Please help Francsico DeSilva stay here. I know you can do it.

And I hope you will.

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