There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children. – Nelson Mandela
by Kailin Koch, Committee on U.S.-Latin American Relations (CUSLAR)
Regardless of political affiliation, ideological orientation or anything else that divides people, most can relate to a commonly held ideal to give children opportunity for a successful future. And whatever inequalities or differences develop with time, children remain at a basic level, equal. Despite this universality, in practice this concept often gets left behind. One in five American children live in poverty. In New York City alone there are an estimated 22,000 homeless children. Often without advocates or a coherent voice, children’s issues tug heartstrings, but often go unheard. Within this underrepresented group, one of the most invisible is the at least one million undocumented children living in the United States, as well as the 4.5 million who are American citizens who have undocumented parents. Remembering these children and the discrimination they face from their own schools helps to defy political mudslinging about immigration and instead encourage constructive and pacific solutions.
Schools represent the epitome of the equality and opportunity offered to children, Many contend that the United States public school system was established to promote equality and opportunity for children, while teaching critical thinking and instilling American values such as freedom and individual rights. Not only do schools today offer unequal resources and often poor education quality, to undocumented students and families, they can become aggressive, intimidating, and sometimes explicitly exclusionary. Recent efforts in Arizona and Alabama, among others, attempted to prevent undocumented students from enrolling in public schools by requiring a birth certificate or social security number before school began. Other local districts have created similar laws, under the guise of saving public education for those who paid taxes.
There are many problems with these legal efforts. First, they run blatantly in opposition to Supreme Court rulings, as well as federal education policy, which prevent schools from denying students access to education based on immigration status. Secondly, schools should play a role of support and resource for families, not one of prosecutorial enforcement. Thirdly, the fallacy that undocumented immigrants do not contribute financially to their community’s is both inaccurate and derogatory. Lastly, targeting children in an effort to police national immigration policy sets a dangerous and heartbreaking precedent for future domestic policy decisions.
1. Legal Obligations of Schools
Plyler v Doe (1982) mandated that schools provide undocumented students access to public education, citing laws barring their attendance as violation of the fourteenth amendment. The opinion also noted that “the deprivation of education takes an inestimable toll on the social, economic, intellectual, and psychological well-being of the individual, and poses an obstacle to individual achievement,” and at best proved an “ineffectual attempt to stem the tide of illegal immigration”. Federal education policy follows this ruling, yet increasingly local and statewide efforts run blatantly contrary to these rulings. Indeed, recently the Department of Education sent out a “Dear Colleague” letter to school administrators and policymakers, reminding them of their obligation to provide education to all students, regardless of their immigration status.
2. Schools as a Resource
Schools have historically been a resource for students and their families. By involving immigration persecution in schools, it transforms them into a prosecutorial rather than resourceful institution in the community. Schools compromise their abilities to help the families they serve (and by law they must help all regardless of immigration status, and cannot use immigration status to target families) by abiding by local and state measures.
3. Undocumented Immigrants’ Contribution to their Communities
Much of the support for policies barring undocumented students from attending public schools hinges on the belief that undocumented families do not contribute to the taxes that support schools. This assumption has repeatedly been disproved. For example, 13 billion dollars were collected in Social Security taxes from undocumented immigrants in 2007. Similarly, undocumented immigrants pay taxes, sometimes at a higher rate than citizens. These erroneous beliefs should not influence education and immigration policy.
4. Children < Politics
What does “society’s soul” look like when children become pawns in political and policy debates? National, even multinational, systemic issues cannot and should not be resolved on the basis of individual children and families. And what does it mean if children should be treated equally and with respect but adults held “culpable” for their immigration status? I posit that if we can recognize that all children deserve protection and educational opportunities under the law, the logical extension is that adults also deserve access to educational opportunities such as university or post-graduate programs. Individual children and families should not have to answer for systemic forces of economic migration.
The “immigration debate” can often feel so overwhelming and polarized that it’s easier to avoid than confront. Yet children provide the most humanized aspect of this debate, and can help remind us why fighting for their protection and opportunity. In the words of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,
“Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. We must use time creatively, in the knowledge that the time is always ripe to do right. Now is the time to make real the promise of democracy and transform our pending national elegy into a creative psalm of brotherhood. Now is the time to lift our national policy from the quicksand of racial injustice to the solid rock of human dignity”