Thoughts on Immigration and Reform
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.