Sunday, January 24, 2010
I felt it was time to bring forth my own personal thoughts and experiences dealing with undocumented students in the classroom. Being public school teachers, we are required to teach all of our students. This includes those who are undocumented as well. It is not within our jurisdiction to question the legal status of our students and our computer system states that they are all legal citizens of the United States. However, I know that I have taught undocumented students in both North Carolina and now California. They have asked me various questions about immigration and pathways to legalization. The look in their eyes shows a tremendous determination and my heart goes out to each and everyone of them.
Undocumented immigrants continue to make headlines throughout the nation. The debate over immigration seems to always pop up every couple of years and I have no doubt that it will reappear at some point in 2010. It is a very heated debate with passions flaring on both sides. Humanitarian groups, border patrol agents, and vigilantes are constantly at odds. In an economic recession, more eyes turn to the debate and questions are raised as to the employment status of these undocumented workers. Not since the 1920s have we seen this much xenophobia in America. There has been an increasing sentiment of nativism, especially in the southern border states.
Largely lost in the shuffle has been the effect of all this on undocumented children. Like I mentioned, they are here and in school doing their best to learn. However, for many of them their promising futures essentially end after high school. Because they don't have the magical nine digit code we call a social security number, their chances for higher education and employment are essentially shut down. As of now, only 1/5 of our nation's states allow undocumented students to attend colleges by paying in-state tuition fees. That's right, in 40 states undocumented students who LIVE in the state have to pay out-of-state tuition fees to attend a school in their home state. For many undocumented students, this price is simply too unbearable. It is in this way that we have hard-working students being denied a continuing education that they so desperately desire. We are essentially closing doors for future scientists, doctors, teachers, and lawyers because they don't have those nine magical numbers. Valedictorians, class presidents, musicians, and artists are all being denied a chance to further their education and to better their lives.
Many of these students were brought to the United States at a young age. They have no recollection of where they were born or how they arrived here. To them, they have been and will always be Americans. Imagine the following scenario: Five year-old Jenny is living with her family in Southern California. One day, her parents tell her and her two brothers that they are going "on vacation." They pack the car full of boxes and drive south. What Jenny's parents did not tell her is that her father and just taken a job setting up a refrigeration company in Mexico. The job pays well, but her father must be there for some time to help get the company off its feet. The family ends up living in Mexico for six years. Jenny and her brothers go to school and learn Spanish. They return later to the United States being bilingual and with a family in much better financial shape.
The above paragraph describes what actually happened to my own mom in the late 1950's. Now, flash forward to today. Reverse the two countries in the above paragraph. Instead of having the family in good condition, imagine a family from poor, rural Mexico. Imagine the family so desperate for a better life that they risk everything for a three day trek across the desert to enter a new country. All Jenny knows is that her family is going somewhere new, she isn't exactly sure where they are going. Jenny's family relocates in Southern California and Jenny works hard in school, becoming bilingual. She has friends and hobbies throughout her childhood. She has no idea that she is undocumented until she applies to college and the form asks her for a nine digit code called a social security number. Right there and then, Jenny learns the truth and her whole world gets turned upside down.
Anyone who teaches in an urban area has Jennys in their classroom. You might not know or suspect it. They don't necessarily have to be your Hispanic children. Forty percent of undocumented workers are people who have overstayed their work visas. That's right, an undocumented student could be Asian, Latino, African American or even (gasp!) White. These are students who do anything and everything from your athletes to your musicians to your class clowns to your honor roll students. They are just like their peers in every way except one: They don't have those nine numbers. While their peers talk about the upcoming graduation and their life beyond high school, these students remain silent. They do not know what their futures hold.
This is why I encourage you all to support the DREAM Act, which is a proposed piece of federal legislation. This act would provide all undocumented students who graduate from high school, who arrived in the country as children, and who are of good moral character temporary residency for a six year period. During this time, the student must graduate from community college or a regular university or must serve in the military for 2 years. They also must not commit any major crimes during the six year window. If they do this, they would then become permanent residents of the United States. A version of this bill was already defeated once in the Senate. However, I implore to have your voices heard. Don't be swayed by racist ideologies and myths about undocumented students. They are not all criminals or gang members like some media outlets would have you believe. For those of us that teach undocumented students, we see the spark that ignites them. They are too talented to go to waste. In an increasingly competitive world, these students could go on to do great things for their country, the only country that they've ever known and that they feel a part of. All they need is a chance.