Sunday, July 10, 2011

In Pursuit of Hope

“..without an education, these undocumented children, ‘[a]lready disadvantaged as a result of poverty, lack of English-speaking ability, and undeniable racial prejudices,...will become permanently locked into the lowest socio-economic class.’”
          - The US Supreme court’s opinion in Plyler v. Doe (1981), quoting the District Court

This past year, my work in the company of recently arrived Latin American immigrants has turned my expectations on their head. Apathetic attitudes were surprisingly rare. Behavioral problems as well. Issues, concerns, academic problems - of course they existed. But given confident and meaningful instruction, my students often worked dutifully in class.

As is always the case in teaching, my students likely taught me more than I could have ever taught them. Their awe-worthy perseverance, their testament to the drive of the indefatigable human spirit makes one pause.

Trains, vans, desert treks, rafts, “coyotes.” They've pursued hope. Sin Nombre, El Norte, Entre Nos, and a recent NPR series shed light on some of their experiences.

And, of course, many of their immigration stories are not nearly as remarkable.

But in one way or another, they've all struggled for the opportunity to be here. And the struggle has not ceased upon arrival.

Work two days a week. Pay rent. Go to school the other three. Scrape for something as commonplace as a pair of glasses. Take care of siblings. And parents. Debate dropping out, getting a GED, or wager high school graduation will come soon enough.

Whether they have their papers or not, they are unshakable in their belief in the American Dream. Because of it, they fight for an education. They fight for a decent living space. They fight for a decent job. They fight.

The living conditions in much of Central America and Mexico grow increasingly untenable. Disparaged by lack of viable work and horrific violence, a great number of people have chosen to try to make their lives in the United States rather than continue to live on slave wages and under the influence of drug cartels. With the richest country in the world just to the north, the push and pull could not be more intense.

North of the border, nativist sentiment - which, allowed its druthers, would have prevented American greatness from coming to fruition decade after decade - has long prevented sensible immigration policy and reform. Americans remain ambivalent over their responsibility toward their southern neighbors. Is it fair for American tax dollars to go toward the education of undocumented immigrants?

South of the border, many live in a hell from which they cannot escape.

According to the Mexican government, 15,271 people lost their lives last year to homicide in Mexico, a 760% increase in murder since 2005. TIME Magazine recently noted that in terms of violent deaths, those statistics make Mexico more dangerous than Pakistan or Afghanistan. Mexico also claims the world's most dangerous city, Juárez, which reported 3,200 murders in 2010.

In his recent book, Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and The Global Economy’s New Killing Fields, Charles Bowden tells the story (one among many) of a journalist fleeing assassins (the Mexican army) angry about his writing. Seeking asylum in the US, he and his son were jailed upon arrival. After seven months in prison, his assassins began hunting his lawyer as well.

Americans toy with sensible policy in circles, then fumble with and nearly always drop our most pragmatic options. Fear mongering and “amnesty” scare enough Americans into killing something as sensible as the DREAM Act for a decade.

When pragmatism does make headway, it does so on the back of self-preservation.

The Economist wrote last November:
“It is a testament to just how nasty the immigration debate has become that a measure that would bring the fearful out of the shadows, encourage tertiary education in a section of the workforce that needs more of it and supply the undermanned army with recruits has gone nowhere.”
Arne Duncan told Michel Martin of NPR this month:
“...we have about two million high-wage, high-skill jobs that are unfilled today because we don’t have the talent to fill those jobs.
“And when we have all these smart, talented, young people, who has [sic] the potential to fill those and then be productive citizens and to pay taxes and to contribute to society, to deny that opportunity doesn’t make sense.
“The final point I’ll make on this is that the Congressional Budget Office, which is, you know, nonpartisan, has estimated that over the next 10 years, if we educate these young people, if we allow them to go to college, this will actually reduce the deficit by a billion dollars because of their increased productivity.”
We might consider sensible policy if it will benefit our economy. We will certainly consider nonsensical policy if it might benefit the powerful.

Bowden writes of Mexican violence in the afterword for the paperback edition of Murder City:
"The killing contains within it all the elements of the terror that thrives beneath our national talk of a U.S. war on drugs - the crackdown on illegal immigration, Plan Merida, the Mexican war on the cartels, and NAFTA bootstrapping poor Mexicans up into the bounties of free trade and globalization. Beneath these policies, death lives and terror lives and poverty lives in a vast silence.
"A family is deported from the United States because the father is illegal, although five of the six children are U.S. citizens. They move into a working-class neighborhood in Juárez, a place where parents congregate to keep their kids out of gangs. There is no hope that such people will get political asylum in the United States, because people are not eligible for that status unless they can prove they belong to a group the Mexican government cannot protect. It is unlikely that the United States will recognize being a poor Mexican citizen as a qualification for political asylum."
He goes on,
"Wages in maquiladoras peaked around 1983 and in real pesos have steadily declined since then. Workers in Juárez earn forty to sixty dollars a week, a slave wage. Since NAFTA's passage, the largest migration on earth has streamed out of Mexico as the treaty crushed peasant agriculture and small industry...
"The wall stops nothing but wildlife. There are no terrorists trudging north with prayer rugs. The drugs cross through our ports of entry, thanks to corruption. And the poor continue to come as best they can, propelled by our drug policies that have made their world a killing zone and our economic policies that have destroyed their ability to survive." 
NPR's Jason Beaubien reports:
"Parts of Guatemala have been abandoned by the state. There's no work, no schools, no future. Poor Guatemalans will risk and endure almost anything....for a chance to get a job in the United States."
We have a hard time imagining a responsibility to be had toward the Mexican and Central American populace beyond the myopic improvement of our own economy. What would it take for policy to be driven by something other than ego inflation, profit, job creation, or political power? Are we capable of embracing solutions that disrupt causes rather than effects? (Firing bad teachers, health sick care, the war on for drugs, bailing out banks.) Are we willing to pay for them? Do we avoid such an approach because deep down we know disrupting the causes would disrupt our lifestyle, our comfortable worldview? Or do we overlook sensible solutions because we're ill-informed?

Due to Mexican violence, researchers estimate that less than half the number of immigrants are coming today as did five years ago.

A Honduran immigrant tells Beaubien,
"I wouldn't recommend this trip to anyone. You don't know who will rob you - who is good, who is bad. But unfortunately in our country, we aren't left with any other option except to emigrate."
Speaking of immigrants, a Guatemalan priest tells Beaubien, "They're not risking their lives...because there is no life for them here."

I think of my students, and I am sure that some will fall short of that American Dream. There are, after all, enormous obstacles. But I am confident that many of them will capture their dream, in their way, despite our political disabilities and regardless of whether we approve. And that is what makes this country so extraordinary.

The liberal ideals we've long professed and often acted in spite of sometimes lie quietly beneath the obnoxious, extraneous, and loud political talking points; the antiliberal foreign policies; and the ignorant xenophobia. None of that has been able to extinguish the promise of those ideals and their tangible benefits.

It is not everyone's land of opportunity. Circumstances will deny that. But the hope the United States transmits like a radar pulse across much of the third world is not an illusion. And though the immigrant fight for success here won't be fair, it won't matter. When you've uprooted your life and left your home, discrimination and barriers to college admittance are just a few more substantial obstacles.

They will succeed not because it will be easy, but because they want to, and it will not be impossible.


  1. "“...we have about two million high-wage, high-skill jobs that are unfilled today because we don’t have the talent to fill those jobs.

    Really? There are no natively born US citizens who don't have those skills and can't learn them?
    No one from the 9+% unemployment lines?

    Is there ever a time Arne says anything that has any connection to reality?

  2. My problem with supporting illegal immigration from Mexico is: Why are we permitting anyone from Mexico to immigrate here (and turn a blind eye to their legality), but enforce strict immigration quotas on people from the rest of the world?

    I know of individuals from Africa who have tried for YEARS to enter America legally (or to bring over their families) and have been denied. Can supporters of illegal Mexican immigrants really argue that Mexicans should be permitted to enter our country at will, but people from sub-Saharan Africa must stay there and possibly die from starvation? What about refugees seeking political asylum? Are these people less worthy than lower-income Mexicans?

    I oppose an immigration policy that allows some people to enter illegally over other people who attempt to enter legally, often from places much more dire than Mexico.

  3. The US also really needs to consider their economic/trade policies and the War on Drugs. Those have tremendous effects on life in Mexico & Latin America. In some cases, those terrible policies are what's driving immigration here-- it's vicious cycle.

  4. Rachel: Good point!

  5. @Attorney DC: Thanks! I meant "it's a vicious cycle." Hate typos.

    I also left out that the War on Drugs and free-trade agreements are terrible for many US citizens, as well.

  6. Are there places more dire than the worst parts of Mexico?

    I wonder if we might have a different responsibility to Latin Americans than we do to potential immigrants from other parts of the world - largely because of what Rachel pointed out.