Your editor thought that he would write a piece today about Center for American Progress’ interesting-yet-simplistic report on teacher pay, and how it left out such key aspects of traditional teacher compensation such as defined-benefit pensions (as well as how it ends up hurting younger teachers who leave long before those benefits kicks in). But that is a matter about which you, dear readers, and I can focus on another day.
What reformers need to do is give attention to a much more-important matter: Building brighter futures for the 57,000 undocumented immigrant children from Central America crossing the Mexican border into America. Helping these kids, many of whom are fleeing from violent and impoverished conditions in Latin America, gain the high-quality learning they need to succeed in this country is an opportunity for school reformers to humanely help these kids and transform American public education for all children at the same time.
As you already know, children as young as in preschool have been crossing the border from places such as Honduras and other Central American locales. Some are coming here because their families want them to escape from drug-related gang violence fueled both by the breakdown of civil society in those countries and America’s war on drugs (as well as this nation’s accompanying consumption of them). One out of every two of kids crossing the border are coming to reunite with mothers and fathers who are already in America undocumented working to provide their kids with money so they can ameliorate bitter poverty.
As a result of their emigration — and the surrender of these children to U.S.border patrol guards — the federal government is running out of places to hold them until it is decided whether to keep them here or deport them back to the terrible conditions from which they escape. The good news is that more than half of the kids are being reunited with relatives here. Just as importantly, the numbers are small compared to the 1.2 million emigres who arrived to our shores every year between 2000 and 2009. But the federal government doesn’t run orphanages or handle child welfare other than on a policy level. So the detention of these kids — especially in conditions that are ripe for incidents of criminal abuse — is increasingly becoming a humanitarian concern.
At the same time, the emigration of these kids has also become ensnared in the much larger battle between Nativists and supporters of expansive immigration over reforming the nation’s dysfunctional (and racialist) emigre quota system. For Nativists –a group that includes many movement conservatives (driven by racial fears as well as by their view that Latinos will naturally vote Democrat instead of voting Republican) and private-sector unions (who think the presence of immigrants will lead to loss of jobs), any effort to help these kids is a Trojan Horse for granting amnesty to millions of undocumented emigres already in the country. [The fact that these immigrants are taxpayers who are also contributors to the nation’s economic and social mainstream never factors into their thinking.]
As a result, they are pushing congressional Republicans (many of whom would simply support expansive immigration) to oppose President Barack Obama’s plan to spend $3.7 billion on dealing with them. Federal lower house leaders, both unwilling to give Obama a legislative victory this election year and tired of his penchant for using executive orders to go around their opposition to his plans, are likely to do Nativist bidding. Immigration foes and congressional Republicans would rather deport the kids back to their countries of origin regardless of whether doing so is either moral or sensible, as without consideration that they will likely attempt to cross the border again. [Obama’s indecisiveness on the entire matter is also rather atrocious.]
Meanwhile their rhetoric about these immigrant kids is even worse. Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin claimed that the emigres would bring common childhood diseases such as lice, measles and chickenpox to her supposedly disease-fee state. Conservative commentators such as Laura Ingraham and Mickey Kaus call the presence of the kids an invasion of America — as if these young men and women, who look like their own kin at home, are somehow conducting acts of war. Amazingly, many of the very movement conservatives who are the first to (rightfully) oppose medical practices that deny the humanity of children yet out of the womb (and profess to be Christian) have gone out of their way to disavow the humanity of kids already on earth because they are immigrants with brown skin.
But it isn’t just Nativists who are denying the humanity of these children. Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy and his Republican counterpart in Iowa, Terry Brandstad, have opposed requests by the Obama Administration to house the border children in their respective states until their immigration status is determined. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley cancelled the state’s plans to house some of the kids as well. [He is supposedly looking for a new plan to house them.] For both Malloy and Branstad, both of whom (like scores of other governors) are up for re-election this year, the fear is that bringing these immigrant children to their states will lead to losing high office. O’Malley, who is termed out this year, has different calculations to make. Helping the kids offers rewards in terms of winning Democrat votes for any future presidential nomination run, but can cost him in a general election against a Republican nominee who will likely take a harsher stance on anything regarding immigration.
In all cases, these politicians are also less concerned with being humane toward children who look like their own kin than with doing the right thing politically. And commentators such as Slate‘s Emily Bazelon are right to call out the likes of Malloy, Branstad, and O’Malley for “behaving shamefully”.
What we have here, put simply, is both the failure of America’s politicians to lead, and worse, their unwillingness to behave morally.
One reason why our nation is often consumed by what Cardinal Sean O’Malley, the archbishop of Boston, would call cultures of death that damage so many children is because the adults who should be giving our kids nurturing are instead preoccupied with their own concerns. It starts with the denial of the humanity of children, the refusal to acknowledge them as younger versions of ourselves. Then it ends with our children’s futures (and sometimes, their very lives) snuffed out by policies and actions that condemn them to the abyss. What these so-called politicians and commentators are doing fails to meet either God’s or man’s baseline standard for common decency.
Let’s be clear about this: The emigration of these kids from Central America to this country is not ideal. Nor is it new. As documentarian Rebecca Cammisa detailed five years ago in her film, Which Way Home, these children took a dangerous journey that includes stowing away on the top of railroad trains, encounters with bandits, and risks of dying in vast deserts of Arizona and New Mexico once they cross into the Lower 48. This is not a journey anyone should ideally recommend any child to do.
Yet these children come here as their parents and other adults have done — and as earlier generations of emigres from Ireland, Italy, and Eastern Europe did in the previous two centuries — because they seek better lives than they can find in their home countries. For those kids whose parents are already here working hard to send home money, it is natural, even admirable, for them to want to reunite their families. For other kids, who come from place such as Honduras, (where violence has been fueled in part by America’s drug consumption and more than a century of foreign policy geared toward rendering those nations servile), even Detroit would be a better place to live than those locales from which they came. That the United States has been responsible for these problems, especially through decades of interference in the affairs of Central American nations (including the propping up of Banana Republic regimes) makes the entire migration sensible. The Monroe Doctrine (along with our position as the land of the free) has led to millions arriving to our borders.
Sending them back to the abyss from which they have escaped is just plain immoral Just as importantly, it is also not really possible. The federal government can’t simply ship off the kids to their home countries in vain hopes that officials there will do right by them. Given that many of these kids also have parents already in this country, the only place the kids can be placed is, well, here. [Update: The federal data released after this story ran shows that this is already happening, with one out of every two kids placed with relatives as part of the federal refugee asylum program.]
There’s also the fact that as much of the underlying cause of the migration lies with the United State’s long-senseless approach to immigration policy. The families of these kids, like earlier generations, are the kind of hard-working people who produce the entrepreneurs and politicians who have made America the most-powerful nation on earth. Yet they are kept out legally because of the nation’s capricious country-based quota system limiting the number of émigrés allowed into the United States to just 700,000 men and women; one’s country of origin (and thus, their ethnicity and race) is still as much a determinant as it was when the first immigration restrictions (against Chinese emigres irrationally feared by an earlier generation of Nativists) were crafted 132 years ago. When an immigration system is so irrational and dysfunctional that skilled laborers have to wait two decades of more to come to this country legally, no wonder why children and others exercise their God-given right to violate irrational laws and come to this nation.
So the kids should stay. Yet this begs a question: How do we help these kids now that they are here. This matters because these children, like their native-born peers, need high-quality teaching, comprehensive college-preparatory curricula, and cultures of genius in schools in order to have brighter futures in his country. While reformers cannot necessarily deal with most aspects of immigration, they can undertake steps to help these kids succeed in school and in life.
This stars with reformers on all sides of the political and ideological aisle calling upon Congress and governors (especially those who are already allied with reformers such as Malloy, Branstad and O’Malley) to do the right thing (shaming them, even) and provide these kids with stability. This includes immediately settling the kids into foster home setting where they can live until they are reunited with their families. Reformers should also work with religious leaders such as Cardinal Timothy Dolan and Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, as well as those few politicians (including Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett and his counterpart in Syracuse, Stephanie Miner) stepping up to help these kids.
It also involves granting them and their families an immediate path to citizenship; while Nativists will object to such terms, reformers and immigration activists can tailor this move by tabling any discussion of addressing what to do with other undocumented emigres (other than those who have already been allowed to stay in the country as a result of Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals executive order issued last year) at least for the time being. Certainly Nativist arguments against immigration (including the rather misguided statement that undocumented emigres are the reason behind growing inequality) are wrongheaded, as the sentiments of many of them against Latinos. At the same time, the first concern must be for kids in need right now.
It also means continuing the overhaul of American public education. As reformers already know, the consequences of the nation’s education crisis are as brutal upon the lives and futures of English Language Learners (who are often immigrant children or immediate offspring of emigres) as it on peers from poor and other minority backgrounds. Implementing Response to Intervention techniques (which can keep these kids out of special ed ghettos), implementing Common Core reading and math standards (which will help them understand and embrace America’s heritage), and revamping our teacher quality pipeline (so all kids regardless of their place of origin can get good and great teachers) are all critical steps.
Meanwhile reformers must challenge the racialism and inhumanity at the heart of Nativist sentiment. Conservative reformers have a particular obligation to challenge the views of our movement brethren. For one, the conservative movement has long been tarred — and rightly so — for ignoring the justifiable concerns of black and Latino communities; conservative reformers cannot expect those communities to support our efforts if our ideological fellow-travelers take aim at minority kids. Secondly, it is what Ronald Reagan (the last president to succeed in passing some kind of immigration reform plan) would expect; as a descendant of immigrants, he knew how they helped build America, and knew that open borders was key to the nation’s prosperity. Finally, Nativist sentiment among many of today’s conservatives is antithetical to the doctrine of natural law (and the belief that all of us have inalienable rights endowed by our Creator) that is at the heart of first principles.
The 57,000 immigrant children here now deserve far better treatment than we adults in this nation have given them. As a moral movement, reformers must stand up and help these kids get humane treatment and high-quality education so they can write their own stories.