I'm an Education Advocate and That's Why I Can't (and Won't) Sit Out the Immigration Fight

Oct 24, 2018 12:00:00 AM


It can be tempting for education advocates to see immigration as a related, but not overlapping, issue. For folks accustomed to thinking about school funding formulae and the wonky priorities in federal competitive grant programs, scorching debates over visa or refugee policies can seem, well, too hot to bother handling. And yet, children of immigrants represent a large part of the country’s current student body. An Urban Institute analysis found that they “accounted for the entire growth in the number of young children in the United States between 1990 and 2008.” In 2016, 1 in 4 U.S. children had at least one immigrant parent. The administration’s family separation policy affects thousands of families. Its attacks on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients—undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children—may affect hundreds of thousands of young American workers. Its proposed changes to U.S. procedures for granting immigrants long-term legal residency—the so-called “public charge” rule— will affect hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants and their hundreds of thousands of U.S.-citizen children. In short, [pullquote]education reformers who want to claim that they’re guided by “doing what’s right for kids,” can’t sit immigration issues out.[/pullquote] Not an option. Not an available choice.

To Support Kids, We Must Engage Both the Facts and the Feelings on Immigration

So, how can they make sense of ongoing American sins against immigrants and their children? As an ideologically broad movement, reformers ought to be able to honestly explore how the country has arrived to such a comprehensive, sustained attack on immigrants and their families. This starts with understanding conservative complaints. In her widely-lauded “Strangers in Their Own Land,” UC-Berkeley sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild offered a “deep story” that explained how some White American conservatives see the U.S. today:
You’ve suffered long hours, layoffs and exposure to dangerous chemicals at work, and received reduced pensions...You haven’t gotten a raise in years, and there is no talk of one. Actually, if you are short a high school diploma, or even a BA, your income has dropped over the last 20 years...You see people cutting in line ahead of you! You’re following the rules. They aren’t.
These feelings—this story—make it hard for some to lead with compassion on immigration. Of course, this can be tough for for progressives like me. [pullquote position="right"]The facts on the ground are not accommodating to these angry folks’ feelings.[/pullquote] Immigrants make great community members. They’re net economic assets to their communities. They integrate quickly and succeed in school. Most bring significant skills and education credentials. Immigrants pay billions in U.S. taxes— whether or not they’re here legally. Some U.S. newcomers have broken our immigration laws. Most have not. In many cases, it’s unclear. But there’s no serious debate over whether or not they make the United States better. While there’s no disputing the facts, facts are not the coin of this realm. This is democracy. This is politics. It doesn’t matter if you’re right. Politics runs on embryonic, deeply felt emotions—on hopes and fears. In 2018, those hopes and fears are fueled by a heady mix of authentic gripes, deliberate fearmongering by some of our leaders and carefully crafted media echo chambers.

To Move Forward, We Must Focus on Common Ground

We want to be better. An overwhelming majority of Americans— nearly 70 percent—want a path for undocumented immigrants to establish legal status here. Strong majorities of Americans agree that immigrants make America better. And yet, here we are, with 2-year-olds sitting in immigration courtrooms, thousands of miles from their families—and further still from any semblance of justice. Here we are, trying to resolve the fates of millions of hardworking, undocumented members of our community by comprehensively destabilizing their lives. A new report from the National Immigration Forum, “Out of Many, One: A Defining Moment for American Immigration,” opens with a question: “How can the United States be a nation of laws and a nation of grace?” For even as we feel the guilt for our collective cruelty to these families, we know that the U.S. must have rules for who can come here and participate in our economy and society. Perhaps they need updating. Perhaps they should be more gracious. Perhaps not. But whatever we decide, we should take them seriously. “Out of Many, One” was built around conversations with “faith leaders, police officers, business owners, immigrants, refugees and other community members” in 26 U.S. towns. It found that, in part, immigration politics are stymied because some Americans are anxious about the state of our cultural identity. Participants often saw immigrants’ linguistic and cultural diversity as interesting and valuable—but also worried that these could be a threat to the culture they find familiar. The substantive path forward is relatively clear. We—the Americans whose immigrant roots are a few generations distant—need, as an accompanying report from More in Common concluded, “to focus first on those things that we share, and this starts with our identity as Americans.” It’s true. That has to be the way forward. “Out of Many, One” concludes similarly: “Everyone shares a common dream to provide for themselves and their family, a common patriotism, and, as a result, a common American identity.” The stereotypical immigrant story—flee desperation and injustice for the simple opportunity to live safely and work towards a stable life—is central to the stereotypical American Dream. [pullquote]What is America if not the construction of wealth and security out of hard work and responsibility?[/pullquote]

Can We Listen to Each Other Across Our Divides? We Must.

However, the political path to building sensible, comprehensive immigration reform around a common American identity is fraught. If you fired up your time machine and headed back to 2011 or so, you’d be compelling when you argued— along with the man serving as president back then—that “the forces that divide us are not as strong as those that unite us.” And you’d be corny, perhaps, but you’d have a real warrant to believe it. Here in 2018, that’s a harder sell. [pullquote position="left"]The forces that divide us do real damage to our union.[/pullquote] We lean on the country’s common love of football, hoping to use it to have a better, more productive conversation about protest rights, Black Lives Matter and/or the police. Instead, we find that this leads many of us to scorn the thing we shared. Progressives get the NFL and Taylor Swift. Conservatives get Kanye West. Sigh. What if politics destroys “the things we share” as Americans whenever it touches them? It’s going to be hard to find room for a politics of grace, a politics that involves standing down and stepping back from combat. It’s going to be especially hard to choose to face and listen to conservative Americans’ anxieties, especially in the context of all those sturdy facts on immigration’s benefits. But what if there’s no other way back to the free, decent, democratic politics that attracts so many newcomer Americans to our shores in the first place?

Conor P. Williams

Conor P. Williams is a fellow at The Century Foundation. Williams was previously the founding director of the New America’s Dual Language Learners National Work Group and a senior researcher in New America's Education Policy Program. He began his career as a first grade teacher in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. Dr. Williams holds a Ph.D in government from Georgetown University, a M.S. in teaching from Pace University, and a B.A. from Bowdoin College. Most importantly, he's a dad.

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