Illustration: Bec Young
In the 1980s, as refugees from U.S.-sponsored wars in Central America sought safety in the United States—only to be declared “illegal aliens” by the government—progressive churches and communities throughout the country decided to become sanctuaries and offered protection. They were continuing the proud tradition of the Underground Railroad. When there is a gross violation of human rights, it is everyone’s obligation to provide protection and defense.
Today, many of the students in our classes—immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants—need similar sanctuary. Perhaps a parent or sibling is one of the 392,000 people deported last year. Perhaps their family struggles with the constant fear of being pulled over and asked about residency status. Or perhaps they are victimized by anti-immigrant bullying at school or on the way home. These children and their families are caught up in an international frenzy of xenophobia.
Worldwide, people are bearing the brunt of globalization: families forced off their land and into low-paying jobs in crowded cities; governments in the Global South forced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to restructure their economies, decimating social programs and safety nets; subsistence farmers forced to compete with subsidized crops from so-called developed countries; violent competition for scarce resources like oil and water. The resulting economic hardship and endless wars have forced an estimated 220 million migrants and refugees to leave their homes. In many countries, including France, Sweden, and the Netherlands, right-wing demagogues have whipped up levels of anti-immigrant hysteria we haven’t seen since the 1930s.
In the United States, the right wing, egged on by Fox News and a slew of radio talk shows, fans the flames of racism: The firestorm of anti-immigrant attacks in Arizona is one recent example (see “Whitening Arizona”). President Obama publicly opposed Arizona’s SB 1070, widely seen as the harshest anti-immigrant measure in the country, and his administration has challenged key provisions in court. But as happens so often with this administration, lofty words have been undercut by appalling policies. The same week SB 1070 was passed, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents carried out a massive raid across Arizona—more than 800 federal agents were involved in the arrest of 50 people. Obama has maintained Bush’s policy on undocumented immigrants, ominously titled Operation Endgame, resulting in a record number of deportations. The administration has continued to deploy both the National Guard and drones at the U.S.- Mexican border. It has also expanded programs like Secure Communities, the data-sharing program between ICE and local police forces that can turn a traffic stop for a broken headlight into a deportation order.
This climate of suspicion and fear can’t help but affect our youth and our schools. One example that gained national attention was the escalating harassment and violence toward Asian immigrant students at South Philadelphia High School last year, culminating in a daylong assault in December 2009 that sent 13 students to the hospital and sparked an eight-day boycott by more than 50 immigrant youth. For months before the assault, school staff members ignored the attacks, in some cases mocking students’ accents and refusing to provide language access. Rather than helping heal the school, Superintendent Arlene Ackerman refused to meet with the Asian community or acknowledge racial problems at the school.
What Does It Take for Students to Feel Safe?
We all know that students need to feel safe to be able to learn. And we all want our classrooms to feel safe and welcoming. But what does that mean today?
The South Philadelphia High School crisis may seem like an extreme example, but all of our students need support and clear expectations about building community. “No bullying” rules aren’t enough. Even very young children can begin to acquire the tools to think critically about racism, stereotypes, and other social issues; to listen to other points of view; and to express their own. They need the opportunity to build bridges to other languages and cultures, and to participate in building safe spaces for all children.
They also need the chance to learn in their own language. In most states, English language learners are forced to take standardized tests in English after just one year, long before they have had enough time to develop academic skills in that language. As schools face increasing pressure to raise test scores in English, bilingual programs have been abandoned or weakened, despite research proving that children learn English best when they have literacy and content instruction in both their native language and in English.
Safe classrooms are a start, but our students don’t exist in a vacuum. We can’t afford to believe we can shut our classroom doors and create islands of safety. We need to ensure that our schools never ask for documentation that might put immigrant parents at risk—for example, Social Security numbers on reduced-fee lunch forms. In communities where ICE agents park outside schools (like Oakland, Calif.), we need emergency communication systems to keep parents informed. We need to elect local officials like the board of supervisors in Santa Clara, Calif., who voted last year to opt out of Secure Communities. We need to address racial violence and harassment wherever and whenever it happens. We need to recognize the silencing of English language learners and their families, and to create conditions to ensure their participation in school dialogue and leadership. We need curriculum that tells the true history of this “nation of immigrants” and the waves of prejudice that so many have had to overcome. We need to start a conversation at every school, in every district, about how we can protect our children and their families.
Solidarity or Competition?
There is a thread connecting many of the other issues we focus on in Rethinking Schools—attacks on teachers’ unions, emphasis on standardized tests, the Race to the Top—and immigrant rights. What is at stake are the values of the society we live in. The values we want to pass on as teachers and parents.
From Sarah Palin to Arne Duncan, there’s an enormous push toward competition. The message is “save yourself”: Forget about union protection; if you teach to the test better than your peers, you can make more money. Forget about open admissions; if you get the highest score on a high-stakes test, you can get a scholarship to college. Forget about pensions, health care, job security; if you think only about yourself and your family, you can claw your way to the top. If there weren’t immigrants here, there would be enough jobs for “real Americans.”
There is a crisis in the United States today—but it’s not caused by immigrants. Scapegoating, deportations, and border walls are not the answer. There is only one world, and it’s getting smaller and smaller. The only route to safety for our children—for all our children—is building solidarity within our borders and beyond. We need “global communities” much more than we need “global competitiveness.” U.S. policies like NAFTA and those pushed by the IMF have had a huge negative impact on the economies of other countries and are largely responsible for recent waves of migration. We can’t turn the clock back, but we can work to reverse policies that continue to wage economic war on the poor. We can look for the most equitable and just ways to deal with the current situation. And that starts with welcoming and supporting those now living within our borders.
As educators and advocates, we’re in an amazing position to help lead that understanding, both in our classrooms and in our communities. Teachers’ unions in other parts of the world—Oaxaca and Honduras most recently—have led communities and entire countries to recognize that freedom from fear is a human right and the basis for building and sustaining democracies. Start small: in your classroom, your school, your neighborhood, a caucus of your union. Keep building, and keep us posted.