When he applied for a position as a junior city councilor on the Keizer City Council, Hugo Nicolas was not asked about his citizenship status in the United States.
The question never came up as he progressed through the screenings in the Leadership Youth program sponsored by the Salem Chamber of Commerce that makes the assignments. Maybe screeners assumed too much, but it’s more likely they were impressed with his credentials.
By that point, Nicolas already possessed a resume thick with volunteer involvement that included roles as a Keizer Police cadet, Keizer Fire explorer, a student government representative and as a translator for car seat clinics at Salem Hospital. Unfortunately, he isn’t a U.S. resident.
As a non-voting junior city councilor, Nicolas set a new standard for the role. He was engaged, professional, courteous and willing. On rare occasions when he missed a meeting, he called ahead to let city staff know his chair would be vacant.
Keizer city councilors learned of Nicolas’s undocumented status late in his tenure as a junior city councilor, but it wasn’t something that was spoken about in public. A year later, the council is now proposing to adopt new rules that would bar anyone who isn’t an eligible electorate upon their 18th birthday from participating in the Keizer program. This would prevent any undocumented student or exchange student from taking part.
This decision is disheartening to say the least.
Regardless of what one thinks of current U.S. immigration policies, not all undocumented residents had a choice in coming to this country. Nicolas walked across the border with his mother at age 11 alongside his brother and sister, none of whom were given a choice as to whether they would stay in their native Veracruz.
As he grew, Nicolas did have a choice. He could have taken up with gangs, let his grades drop, dropped out of school. In short, he could have become the sort of person many talking heads would have us believe is the absolute norm for someone in Nicolas’s situation. Instead, Nicolas chose to stay in school, take honors courses, join a North Salem High School Army Reserve Officer Training Corp, and volunteer in his community. He chose to be one of the people trying to make our community, our state and our nation even better.
Not only should Nicolas be commended for this effort, the Keizer City council should honor his legacy by continuing to accept undocumented students and exchange students into the junior city councilor program.
Closing the door on students like Nicolas only adds the challenges anyone in his shoes faces growing up. There is no danger in allowing these access to the democratic process except if one considers contributing to the spread of democracy dangerous. It’s a chance to instill in young minds the ideals we hold dear and an opportunity for them to inspire others in their communities here or abroad.
We certainly want local students to partake in opportunities like the junior city council program, but on the occasions when non-resident students rise to the top, we should be taking full advantage of the opportunities to teach and learn from them.
For these reasons, it is our sincere hope the Keizer City Councilors reconsider the decision to bar undocumented and exchange students from the junior city councilor program in our city.
A president once dubbed our nation a shining a city on a hill. This would be an ennobling way for Keizer to take a moment in the spotlight.