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Borders Shouldn’t Keep Refugee Children Out of America, Nor Should They Keep Black and Brown Children Out of Good Schools

A growing number of people are outraged by our current immigration debacle involving refugees on the southern border of the United States: children in concentration camps and denied basic services, like blankets and soap. Many folks so outraged see inhumanity not only in the treatment of refugees upon arrival, but also in a broader fixture of U.S. immigration policy: criminalizing people who flee bad circumstances to give their children a better life. 

During the first set of primary debates, Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro broke through by declaring his support for decriminalizing undocumented entry into the United States. And that stance was likely a factor in the uptick in popularity that came his way.

Yet, at the same time, many of the same people applauding Castros’ stance fully support school districts’ insistence on zoning families into “neighborhood schools.”

The Moral Question of Arbitrary Borders

Our American public schools are based on arbitrary borders, like all borders, designed to keep affluent (mostly White) students in one school system and poor (mostly Black and Brown) students in another school system. These school borders enforced with legal consequences, including jail time, for any parents who cross American public school borders to enroll their child in a better school that has a direct correlation to better opportunities for their child(ren). 

In both the American immigration and education systems, the guiding moral question is this: Are borders inherently a tool for racial and economic segregation? Most research supports the theory, that wealthy privileged folks create borders primarily keep resources and systems separate. Borders are created to determine who is entitled to enter, receive services and be treated to equality and quality institutions, within these borders. Refugees fleeing violence and community instability want something better for their children, so they risk it all to come to the United States, where the poem on the Statue of Liberty says, “Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”

Many Americans, especially liberal Democrats, are outraged by the audacity of the government to deny access to “the American Dream” to refugees. Yet, in their own communities, they have no problem enforcing borders, and supporting punishment for Black and Brown families who try and escape their communities of violence and failing schools by enrolling in their neighboring community’s schools. 

Borders are Problematic for Those Most Vulnerable

Borders—national, state, and local—are problematic for the most vulnerable of our residents. High-poverty communities struggle with unemployment, violence and drug abuse everywhere, whether in Central America or South Central Los Angeles. On the U.S./Mexico border, the geography where children are born can have huge effects on their later chances to succeed and thrive. Meanwhile, within the U.S., the relative wealth and racial privilege of ZIP codes and census tracts offer much greater and lesser chances for children born into poverty to climb the economic ladder, as Harvard economist Raj Chetty has mapped out in The Opportunity Atlas

District and school borders are created—and changed—with these realities in mind. Today, a new report from EdBuild highlights nearly 1,000 borders between school districts where significant gaps in funding can be seen on either side of the line. For example, Aurora, Illinois, the state’s second largest city after Chicago, is divided into six school districts with significant gaps in resources and significant demographic differences. According to the report, East Aurora serves more than 14,000 mostly Latinx students, spending almost $13,000 per pupil, the neighboring Batavia district serves less than half as many students, mostly White, and spends almost $17,000 per pupil. 

Since the year 2000, a growing number of communities—128 to date—have tried to redraw district lines to their advantage, concentrating wealth and opportunity in a smaller zone, usually Whiter and more affluent. Also, generally speaking, wealthier communities monitor and enforce district and school residency rules more strictly, requiring multiple forms of address verification, employing private investigators and even sending parents to jail for residency fraud.

Black and Brown Families are Zoned Out of Good Schools

When people call to “defend neighborhood schools,” that’s what I hear. I hear White, affluent parents protecting their privilege and hoarding the opportunities their children are receiving at the expense of Black and Brown families who are zoned out. When education funding is tied to local property taxes, neighborhood schools lock less-wealthy children of color out of opportunity.

To add insult to injury, many of the same White, affluent parents who espouse neighborhood schools oppose school choice options for poor parents. What this tells me is that there are plenty of wealthy White people of all political stripes, including progressives, who are willing to let Black and Brown children languish in under-resourced, low-performing schools while denying them school options through charters or school vouchers. I don’t understand the cognitive dissonance of people who live in suburban and/or affluent communities being furious and morally outraged over a refusal to allow refugees and immigrants to enter the U.S., while they sit comfortably within school and district borders designed to keep Black and Brown children out of their children’s schools.

To me, either you believe in equal access to opportunity for all children, or you don’t.

Access to opportunity, safety and quality education is a human right for all children. If you believe that refugees from other countries have the right to enter the United States and a right to opportunity, then you must also extend those rights to the Black and Brown children already within the borders of the United States.

Our system of deciding who gets a quality education based on borders that perpetuate racism and economic inequality is wrong. Borders and boundaries as determinants for a quality of life are just as wrong for refugee children as they are for U.S. public school children.

ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson
ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson is the mother of two free-spirited, strong-willed girls and has a husband who should be appointed a saint for co-existing in the madness that is their life. She writes on politics, education, current events and social justice. She is also a taco enthusiast, a proud member of the Bey-hive, and truly believes that she will be receiving her letter from Hogwarts any day now.

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