Why Are White People So Afraid of Immigrant Kids?

Apr 24, 2018 12:00:00 AM


Not long ago I was in Wilmington, Delaware— reporting another story—and I visited Academia Antonia Alonso, a two-way dual immersion charter school where over half the students are English-language learners. I sat down in one classroom and flexed my rusty, trusty undergraduate Spanish major ( and long-ago practice in Barcelona pubs). An African-American girl with two buns held by pink hair-ties screwed up her face and explained the difference between singular and plural nouns, in halting—but linguistically perfect—Spanish. Next, students worked in pairs to sort nouns on a paper. “ Vamos a escribirlos en colores diferentes?” (“Are we going to write them in different colors?”) asked a wiggly Latino boy in a blue sweater. A small girl with rainbow ribbons and unicorns on her headband grew distracted. “ ¿Sabes como se escribe ‘delicioso’?” asked her teacher (“Do you know how to write ‘delicious’?”). The girl nodded—she knew, but she rolled her eyes and tossed her head with a giggle before starting to write.

Threat Alert

Here they are, those kids you’ve heard so much about. Here are those children of immigrants who are supposedly threatening the safety and future stability of the United States. Though March 5 has come and gone, the United States has done nothing to stabilize conditions for children of immigrants protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Worse, The Washington Post recently reported that President Donald Trump is preparing to sign a long-rumored executive order to make it much harder for legal immigrants to secure permanent residency in the United States. The new policy would make it much more difficult for parents and/or low-income immigrants to come to—and stay in—the United States. The new policy doesn’t target hardened criminals or other nefarious evildoers. It targets immigrant parents simply because they are parents. [pullquote position="right"]It targets the immigrant poor simply because they are poor.[/pullquote] Why, in a country with falling birth rates, does this administration reserve such special attention to making life harder for the world’s meek and downtrodden families? I’m a White guy who lives in a neighborhood full of immigrant families. I spend a fair amount of my professional life in and around schools full of immigrant children. I am profoundly grateful for how immigration has shaped—and is shaping—the United States. My life is fuller, richer and better for having so many diverse newcomers in it. These kids aren’t scary. They’re every bit as brilliant and funny and charming as my White, native-born kids. They care about the promise of America. Here they are in this Academia Alonso classroom, talking to their native-born U.S. peers, learning English and teaching Spanish. Here they are, being who and what they are: children, just like any other children. They’re curious and sociable most of the time, and they master things and get bored faster than adults might expect. They’re interesting and profound, earnest and ambitious, clever and naive. Yes, these are the kids roiling— and being terrorized by—American public discourse in 2018 (and for some time before now). “It’s the spirit, the morale, that’s suffering,” says head of school José Aviles. “It’s been a nightmare,” he sighed, when I asked about the effects of the 2016 election. “Even though the school setting is happy and safe—it affects all of us. “We’ve been helping families through the deportation process. It’s painful. It’s a shame—a nation like this, with the multiculturalism that’s so big, so beautiful, it’s what makes America so special.”

Seeking UNIDOS

Diversity sets Academia Antonia Alonso apart as well. The school takes a broad-minded view of education. “It’s not only the language, it’s the culture,” says Aviles. “We don’t focus on academics only. Character development is a priority.” Specifically, character education is organized around the school’s “UNIDOS” values: Unity, Never Give Up, Integrity, Discovery, Ownership and Self-Discipline. These are plastered on banners on the wall, included in morning announcements and integrated into academic units. Students split their days between Spanish and English lessons, and learn capoeira—a blend of dance and martial arts from Brazil. “We want to make sure we’re creating thinkers and leaders in the school,” says Aviles, whose own children are also enrolled. Of course, as I wandered around, there were multilingual folks everywhere. But no one threatened me in the hallway. No one glared when I garbled a question in Spanish and screwed up the grammar. No one rolled their eyes when I defaulted to English during a conversation with a teacher. To the contrary, the school was clamorous—not too loud, perhaps one notch more bubbly than the norm. Students in another classroom I visited were already deep into a project, heads huddling close, murmurs periodically interrupted with the sing-songy squeals of kids’ mental gears engaging. It was, in other words, simply another diverse, happy American public school. And, of course, they’re just kids. They don’t yet know who they are or precisely how they fit into the United States, but they’re perceptive, and they’re watching for clues from the rest of us. When loud American voices yell that these children’s languages, their cultures, their (entirely coincidental) places of birth are ruining the United States, these kids hear it all.

Fears Are Not Realities

What is it that bothers people—especially my fellow White, native-born American people—so much about neighbors who happened to be born somewhere else, who may look or sound differently? Well, many voters supported Donald Trump’s run for president because they felt that something had gone awry with American culture. A Public Research Religion Institute survey found that “White working-class voters who say they often feel like a stranger in their own land and who believe the U.S. needs protecting against foreign influence were 3.5 times more likely to favor Trump.” More than half of the survey’s voters believe that White Americans are as likely to face discrimination as non-White Americans. The English language often stands in as a proxy here, and it’s long been a concern for conservatives. While running for the Republican Party’s 1996 presidential nomination, Sen. Bob Dole said, “With all the divisive forces tearing at our country, we need the glue of language to help hold us together. If we want to ensure that all our children have the same opportunities in life, alternative language education should stop and English should be acknowledged once and for all as the official language of the United States.” Odd as it seems to cheerful multiculturalists like me, there’s something to this anxiety. Sure, some of it boils down to straight bigotry, to folks who are just instinctively afraid of diversity. That’s difficult to overcome one-on-one, and impossible to reverse (quickly) at a national scale. But some White, native-born Americans’ fears are at least partly a product of their views around cultural solidarity. They reflect—correctly, I think—on their lives in a democratic community, and worry that it can’t continue without a thick set of shared beliefs. It’s easier to work on the shared problems in our neighborhoods, towns, states and country if we all share some common convictions about what we want out of our lives together. If that’s a dominant part of how you see the world, multiculturalism can seem like a threat. Fortunately, seeming is not being. Fears are not realities. And even if we wished it, [pullquote position="right"]the American multicultural experiment isn’t going away.[/pullquote] Notwithstanding large public debates about DACA recipients and recently arrived adult immigrants, the primary drivers of American pluralism are mostly young, native-born American children with immigrant-origin parents. Children of immigrants make up a large and growing share of the American student body. They’re a big part of the the future of the American workforce. Research shows that immigrants make great neighbors. In his “There Goes the Neighborhood,” immigrant advocate Ali Noorani tallies up the facts:
Undocumented immigrants pay $11.6 billion in local and state taxes each year. Immigrants live an average of 3.4 years longer than native-born Americans, are less likely to develop obesity, alcoholism and depression, and are less likely to die from cardiovascular diseases or cancer. Young immigrant men (ages 18 to 39) are sent to jail at roughly half the rate of native-born men of the same age. And immigrant communities experience significantly less crime than predominantly native-born neighborhoods.
Look, if we should be afraid of anything, it’s that the fury of our current politics will somehow mess immigrant families up. What if our intolerance inadvertently creates the detached immigrant cultures some Americans fear? Today’s children of immigrants see White supremacists feted by our political leaders. They hear people of their ethnicities denigrated by those same people. They watch their communities being targeted by armed members of the state. I shudder to imagine the lessons they’re learning from the daily brutality of American public life in 2018. Would they be wrong to become embittered? Can we credibly feign surprise if they give up on bedrock American institutions?

Diversity in the Grocery Aisle

One of the last stores along the Lancaster Pike before you turn into the office park housing Academia Antonia Alonso is the 7 Day Farmers Market. On my way back to D.C., I stopped in to grab a snack and was astonished to find that this was no ordinary grocery store. The shelves were stocked with food spanning the spectrum of culinary imagination: anything from breadfruit to Bombay Bhel Puri to jocotes to what must have been few million distinct types of rice. This is a market for the world, for the full range of diverse American palates. And then something caught my ear. There, on the speakers, was Blake Shelton, singing a Christmas duet with Kelly Clarkson. As they crooned about “the new kid in town...lying in a manger down the road,” I couldn’t help but feel a rush of optimism. This was encouraging—American country music (Christmas-infused, no less) in a multicultural supermarket, wafting equally over the woman in the hijab surveying the meat section and me, the dorky White guy with bad posture. We don’t have to choose between diversity and who we are as a nation, between our growing pluralism and our united solidarity. As bad as things seem in Washington or out there on Twitter, perhaps this big, messy, diverse American experiment might just work out after all.

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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