By Ian Altman
The Department of Homeland Security will now exercise prosecutorial discretion to spare deportation to somewhere between 800,000 and 2.1 million undocumented young people. To be eligible, these students must have been here for at least five years continuously and must have been brought here before they were sixteen.
I have enough opinions, arguments, and speculations about this new situation to fill a few volumes, but will limit myself to the perspective I know best: that of a public high school English teacher.
The Duties of a Teacher
Public school teachers have a duty to help undocumented students navigate the difficult straits they face. That is especially true of high school teachers, as our students deal with the college application process and attempt to find employment.
As we get to know our students over the years, the teacher-student relationship evolves. Obviously, we are first and foremost their academic teachers, but we also become their advisors, tutors, mentors, counselors, advocates, confidants, sometimes confessors, couples therapists, and, in some cases, their friends. That is as it should be. Helping an undocumented student fits right in as part of the package, especially if she or he comes to me with the gift of trust in telling me that she is undocumented.
From my perspective, therefore, one of the effects of President Obama’s new directive is that it officially sanctions my respect and care for these students as human beings not fundamentally different from any of my other students. Suddenly it feels as if my neck isn’t stuck out quite as far as it was before.
We have an ethical obligation to teach, advise, and care for every student who walks through our doors, no matter what they look like, where they come from, what languages they speak at home, and whether they have Social Security numbers. It is not our job to know who is documented and who isn’t, and the only reason we would know is if the students themselves tell us. When that happens, I have to make a choice.
Am I going to support this student, try to make sure she is well cared for, find out what particular obstacles she faces and how to navigate those obstacles, let her know that she has an ally who will stand up for her so that she doesn’t have to deal with the problem alone? Or am I going to say, “I’m sorry; I wish there were something I could do?”
The first response treats her with the respect she is due as a human being; the second, in essence, politely tells her that I wash my hands of the situation and says, “Please get to the back of the bus so that I can help everyone else.”
I believe that no person in my profession can rightly choose the second response.
The Push for the DREAM Act and the Influence of ALEC
The need for support leads to another crucial and related issue. Since President Obama’s policy is really just a directive from a memo, it only underscores the need to continue pushing for the DREAM Act. Those of us who are willing and able must be engaged and informed.
We need to know, for example, about the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which is the group that provided the anti-immigration conceptual framework and actually wrote most of Arizona’s SB 1070 and Georgia’s HB 87.
We need to know that these efforts were bankrolled by the private prison industry, which stands to gain billions because of the privately owned and managed immigration detention centers in this state and many others.
In addition to the private prison industry, ALEC is funded by the Koch brothers, the National Rifle Association, the pharmaceutical industry, private health insurance companies, some national charter school companies, and many other nefarious entities that fix our laws to keep themselves out of trouble while behaving like wanton gangsters.
The most charitable thing I can call that is a perversion of democratic governance. That troubling reality is a still relatively hidden part of what undocumented students (not to mention the rest of us) wake up to every day, and I believe we should expose it.
To counteract that reality, we furthermore need to be directly engaged in the legislative process and to know, for example, that the DREAM Act is currently in the House Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security.
We need to know which legislators are on that committee and to look into the demographics of the districts they represent in order to figure out how best to convince them to support the DREAM Act. That is the direction President Obama’s announcement should prod us to go, and some of us are indeed working for that change. President Obama’s announcement said to these students, in essence, “I know you’ve done nothing wrong. I know you want to be American citizens and for most of you, I see no reason you shouldn’t be. This is temporary, and we need a permanent solution.”
As things currently stand in Congress, we are not likely to get that solution, but that is no reason we cannot make the necessary changes more palatable and politically feasible for the opposition.
The last and most complicated thing I want to bring to your attention is the language and rhetoric surrounding undocumented students.
The Rhetoric about the Undocumented
Obviously, language is relevant in the presidential campaign, but I’m talking about the language on the street, the words people use every day to talk about undocumented students and the implications of those words. Most teachers become acutely aware of the language used by and about our students, but as a teacher of English language and rhetoric, I have become especially sensitive to it.
President Obama’s new policy allows certain of these students to apply for work permits, and it has implications for college admissions. We’ve long heard from objectors that undocumented immigrants take American jobs and that they take places in colleges from citizens, even though everyone in the entire world is allowed to apply to Georgia’s universities except undocumented students actually living in the U.S.
I should also point out that last year, Governor Deal tried to implement a program for parolees to work the farming jobs in central and south Georgia that had largely been worked by migrant workers, and they couldn’t do it. They walked off the job in some cases after an hour. The crops rotted in the fields, costing farmers millions, and therefore also costing the state millions in tax revenues.
We need those workers here, although I shudder to think what would happen if a Cesar Chavez or a Dolores Huerta stepped up in this state to try to guarantee good wages for them as happened in California. I can almost guarantee that you would start hearing ugly phrases like “uppity Mexicans” and talk of “agitators” and “communists.” That brings me to the real importance of language here.
Another report that has still gone largely unnoticed is that for the first time in recent decades, immigration from other regions of the world has outpaced immigration from Mexico and Central and South America. Those immigrants are also looking for jobs and for places in our universities, and since they are, the objection should be the same.
My guess is that the objections will be different, though, and that will reveal another and more insidious reason people object to Latino immigrants here. It shows up already in the way we talk about them. Since we know the objection that Latino immigrants take jobs and university spaces from American citizens is specious, it shows that most if not all the arguments people brandish against them are window dressing for racism, which according to philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre is ultimately only fear of oneself and of the mutability of the world one lives in.
Although the overtly eugenics-based hatred of the Nazis or the Klan is no longer fashionable, a complex, subtle, and pervasive fear of difference and change is still at the root of anti-Latino sentiment.
That feeling is the cause of the snide, whispered comments I hear sometimes in my classroom, “They smell like burritos,” and the like. It is also at the root of statements such as, “If they’re going to be here, they need to learn our language,” which completely ignores the facts that although “we” (whoever “we” are) do primarily speak English, we nonetheless have no legally official language, that Spanish and other languages can be “ours” just as much as English can be “theirs,” that most if not all immigrants try desperately try to learn English, and that most of them succeed at least adequately.
It may seem that this kind of racism would also apply to other immigrants, and in some ways it does, but there is a supervening consideration which softens it: classism.
Generally, and notwithstanding the many exceptions, Latino immigrants tend to be poor, and most other immigrants tend to be middle class, and that makes those other immigrants’ presence here more acceptable to the public eye. This classism is an integral part of the text of the world that we read every time we look at it.
A pervasive stereotype of Latino immigrants is that they are all construction workers, chicken plant workers, or vegetable pickers. That makes them, in the public eye, part of what in the past was the servant class whom we expected to accept servitude in silence, the sharecroppers who were so easy to exploit and terrorize, and before that the slaves.
That history did not merely transpire; it accumulated. Those perceptions, whether or not we want to admit it, are ingrained into the very words we use to talk about Latinos. We see this “text” inscribed onto their very bodies when we look at them and in their words when we hear their accents. That is also why middle class African American families still seem out of place to so many people. At the broadest of levels, the power of this linguistic matrix is why racism of all types persists despite the general insistence on an abstract, intellectual belief in the equality of all people.
Teachers have a duty, first, to know about these things, and second, to make students aware of them. That may sound like political advocacy, which of course is disallowed in the classroom, but it is not.
It can go against the interest of both liberals and conservatives, and it comes from a fairly straightforward analysis of our language and usage. That is why teaching and thinking can be such dangerous activities, why tyrants always try to restrict what is taught and what is read.
And that is why, for example, I consider it a kind of crime that the Tea Party administration of Arizona has banned Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed from that state’s classrooms, and that the Mexican-American studies program is now disallowed from the Tucson school district where more than half of students are Mexican-American. They have taken from teachers and students the means to define and say for themselves on their own terms what and who they are.
Thanking President Obama
The issues I have considered here may seem only distantly related to President Obama’s June 15 directive. They are not. They should be the first kinds of things we think about when any public figure says something as important as what he said.
I can’t thank him enough for taking this first step, because I know these kids and I know President Obama is right about them. Every time an undocumented student walks into my classroom and participates and helps other students learn something, I know that supporting their efforts to go to college, find gainful employment, and gain citizenship is the right thing to do and should be part of my job.
These students know what they have to lose and therefore often work twice as hard as others, and it is Georgia’s loss and shame that our leaders have not been more welcoming.
President Obama has stepped up and tried to do right by kids who have become as American as any of us, and for that he deserves our gratitude.
English teacher Ian Altman wrote about this issue in an earlier essay: