Monday, April 10, 2006

Thoughts on Immigration and Reform

This may well lack acceptable levels of organization.

On the immediate horizon:

More than 80% of my students (and our school) are Latino, and an even higher percentage is composed of immigrants or the children of immigrants. More walk-outs are scheduled for Monday. So far, very few kids have walked-out of our school; those that did had parental support and we received notification. Ask the kids, and they’ll tell you a variety of things that you, from your lofty perch, will dismiss as ill-informed: Schwarzenegger hates Mexicans, nobody wants Mexicans in this country, they’re trying to send everyone back. Ask the kids, and they’ll define an American as someone who was born in this country. Small minorities will define Americans as either rich whites, or anyone who comes here to work and be educated. Maybe half will self-define as some form of American, hyphenated or no. They’ll tell you they all know somebody who was sent back. Most returned. Ask the kids, and you find out that it’s not as simple as undocumented or not. Families do not come in single-flavor varieties. Mom has a visa, dad is undocumented and so is older brother, kid and younger siblings were born here. Extrapolate from there.

You like that the kids are taking interest in the realities of a world apart from bad hip-hop and myspace. You like that they are developing political instincts and possess the sense that they have power here. You like a willingness to stand up to perceived wrongs.

You don’t like kids draped in Mexican flags mugging for attention on the side of streets. You don’t like the lack of information or the lurking sense that providing it will make you seem in conflict with families, and that’s never such a good thing. You don’t like that this exercise in political will tends to energize the other side of the debate, those that never would have cared until they saw images of 500,000 people who don’t look like them marching in the streets of Los Angeles. You don’t like the prospect of teaching to less than full classrooms.

POY hit it right on the day of our Cesar Chavez celebrations. Fight for your rights, but live up to your responsibilities.

On a larger scale I watch with the distance of incomprehension as every progressive I know lines up in opposition to any attempt to place restrictions upon undocumented immigration or the companies that benefit from their labor. I don’t accept the idea of a closed society. I don’t accept the idea of criminalizing people who have come to live and work. Shootings on the borders or the desperate measures many have taken to enter this country make me sick. At the same time, the status quo is unacceptable. As it stands, the glut of undocumented workers drives down wages in many labor and service industries, all but doing away with acceptable living standards. Corporations are allowed to reap massive profits, while we condemn these better-life-seekers to essential serfdom. Lacking legal status, lacking education, living in atrocious poverty and fairly constant fear, the undocumented workers will never organize and never possess the political power to improve their lives. In opposing any type of reform, progressives affirm their superficial support of a people yearning to breathe free, but they stand in arm-locked unity with nauseating corporate interests drooling over the unlimited supply of cheap labor.

I hate the argument that immigrants take the jobs Americans refuse to work. It’s not the jobs. Americans, as a people, are not afraid of manual labor, not above working with their hands or out in the fields. Americans, however, tend to refuse to work for poverty wages, with no health care, in unsafe or unsanitary conditions. Americans tend to demand more from their employers. Immigrants leaving less than humane conditions in a former country, lacking education, security, and language, tend not to make those kind of demands.

Acceptable reform looks like this: Enact measures to bring undocumented immigrants into the socio-legal American mainstream, while simultaneously making it more difficult to live and work outside of it.

We need to streamline and publicize the steps to citizenship, encourage and facilitate a move toward full legal status in the undocumented immigrant community. People fight for what is theirs. People care about what they are a part of, not what they are excluded from. Why do they wave Mexican flags? Because they are denied access to what the American flag stands for. This is not about what your great-grandparents did or how you think they felt. This is a new era, a different America, a different immigration. Leave the self-righteous indignation over alternative flag choice for a minute, and consider underlying motivations and root causes. We ought to fear the prospect of future generations of political and cultural outsiders, both shut out and retreating. Immigration is more than the crossing of a map-line and greater access to consumer products.

At the same time, we need to toughen regulations on the hiring of undocumented persons. Not as racist stance, not as an anti-small business measure, but because the practice of serfdom and wage salary is repugnant in America. It is because we are not racist that we refuse to accept a different standard of life for those of darker skin and more equatorial origination. It is because we are not racist that we refuse to accept men and women working their hands off for mere dollars a day, just because it may be better than what they could get elsewhere.

For the kids who get fired up about this, I’ll tell them that the surest insurrection is enlightenment, which can only come from the broadening of a mind, the development of academic and intellectual skill, the long climb out of the dank bucket of under-achievement. Then I’ll go back to teaching phonics and vocabulary, semi-colons and indirect characterization. Because the big things are built small.


Blogger Johanna said...

You humble me. Seriously.

7:23 PM  
Anonymous Eric said...

Here's what I've gleaned from your blog, please correct any misunderstandings:

Si se puede is not taking root, kids have some political awareness but don't have a sense of self efficacy, progressives don't grasp the complexity of the immigration problem, and yet, when volleyball is threatened the kids take notes, address the problems, and nearly win the county championship.

Sounds like the kids aren't connecting with a source of self efficacy adequate to address the complexity of issues which confront them. That's in part a curriculum issue. How are Gandhi, Chavez, MLK, and Fred Shuttlesworth presented? How do kids develop "Birmingham eyes" that allow them to discern injustice, and the political skills to address it?

California's Chavez curriculum appears to be exemplary; Ohio's civil disobedience model lesson is pretty sorry--using Henry David Thoreau's Civil Disobedience. In contrast consider The Fight in the Fields: Cesar Chavez and the Farmworkers' Struggle, including the segments with Cardinal Roger Mahoney. His more recent position on immigration reform is stated in a letter to President Bush, an radio coverage on NPR, and a New York Times editorial.

Progressives can talk the talk of curriculum integration all they want. But the picture you've painted is one of toxic public schools unable to prepare students for the world in which they live. Don't these kids deserve to know enough of their heritage so they can tell who their real friends are?

7:17 AM  
Anonymous Kennet D. Santana said...

Right On! This is the type of commentary that has been missing from the the public space for too long. It's raw, it's prophetic and it's analytical.

The lack of such critical analysis, and more importantly, action based on it, is making the democratic party in this country irrelevant.

I attended demonstrations this week in San Francisco. The democratic politicians that spoke before the march did not added to the dialogue. They merely basked in the glory of it. They used the gathering to hand out election flyers instead of leading with action or thought.

The people are leading. "History is ours and the people will make it." --Salvador Ayende

8:16 AM  
Blogger TMAO said...


In mentioning the notion of Si Se Puede, I was trying to illustrate the plateau-ing of social movements: Once the highly visible wrongs have been righted, everything gets a whole lot harder and continued progress toward the original goal stagnates. We have the union, the vote, the school -- now what?

To answer your question, social transformers like the ones you mentioned are presented outside the normal run of curriculum. This is somewhat unfortunate, but at the same time, I'd rather see our middle schoolers engaged locally, with issues that truly confront them, then engage the issues of a previous generation. If that means they know more about how to save a volleyball season than the intricacies of an immigration reform bill, I wonder if this is a bad thing.

11:33 PM  
Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

I really loved that last paragraph, and especially the last line.

When wages are driven down, the workers do not profit-- the businesses who are already violating the law do.

These illegal workers have no protection in the workplace. They are used by the Mexican government to transfer hard currency back to an immoral malfunctioning economy and to take the pressure off the Mexican government to expand opportunity for the vast majority of its own citizens. They also have no health care and no benefits.

This is all a cynical political and economic ploy. Blue collar workers will be pitted against each other so that all suffer.

9:14 PM  
Anonymous zack said...

where to start... well, there is some truth in your speech especially in a large city i susupect that there is worse living conditions. how about this, lets look at mexico its economic stance and its lack of growth or any proactive measures in supporting its own labor market. china, india and other developing nations have had enormous growth-dont you think that if mexicans could stay in mexico they would? i am for increasing the H-2B cap and completely opening up the H-1B visa program. But, with open boarders comes the problem- the welfare state. you had brought into light the horrible living conditions etc. if someone working the horrible job would not be able, or would not be will to find another job that would suit his wants/needs whats not to keep him from looking down the street and seeing someone collecting on a welfare check and saying... i could do that. two points that need to be addressed first... mexico's economic position and its inefficiencies and the U.S. welfare system. i think then we can deal without the regulations and maybe americans in the future will be migrating to mexico in some sick twist of events.
just tried to touch on a lot of topics... chumming if you will.
alas, too many just like to use bandaids when surgery is necessary. demanding rights here and there should have started at home; instead, its going to be riots in our streets if people dont want to go back... anyone seen the news from paris lately?

9:02 PM  

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