Earlier this week, advocates for reforming America’s obsolete and byzantine immigration laws – including children of undocumented émigrés forced into educational and economic limbo out of no fault of their own – held rallies throughout Washington, D.C. From a group of teenagers playing drums and cymbals while leading a large rally near the U.S. Senate’s collection of office buildings, to the crowds marching along the Supreme Court building into the early evening hours, these parents and activists were passionate about standing up against an immigration system that is arbitrary, capricious, and still driven by unproven nativist fears that émigrés are hardened criminals and welfare cases who contribute nothing to the nation’s economic or social fabric.

wpid10020-wpid-this_is_dropout_nation_logo2.pngThese families and activists were not alone. Within the past few weeks, families and school reformers have gathered together in front of statehouses – including in Tallahassee, Fla., and Indianapolis – to support the expansion of school choice and passage of proposed Parent Trigger laws that would allow poor and minority families to take over and overhaul failing traditional district schools in their neighborhoods. These collections of mothers, fathers, caregivers, and advocates were also zealous about ending Zip Code Education policies that condemned children to dropout factories and failure mills that damaged their futures and that of the communities in which they lived.

But immigration activists and school choice advocates have more in common than just their dedication to stand up for what’s right for their children and families. By standing up for their respective causes, they are forcing America to address the legacy of racial, ethnic, and religious bigotry that still shapes the nation to this day. This is a reality the school reform movement must keep in mind as it advances the transformation of American public education.

For one to understand how both immigration reform activists and school reformers are working toward a common goal, one must consider this fact: Before 1882, there was no such thing as illegal immigration. So long as they weren’t engaged in criminal behavior, an emigrating Irishman could simply walk into this country and after five years, become a citizen. In fact, immigration was encouraged by the Founding Fathers such as James Madison, who only demanded that immigrants be required to serve a probationary period just to make sure that they would “increase the wealth and strength of the community”. They did. Between 1836 and 1914 alone, some 30 million Irish, Russian, and other European émigrés alone risked their lives to come to this country. So did another 300,000 Chinese arrived between 1851 and 1882.

The nation benefited. Thanks to the hard work of Chinese Ă©migrĂ©s, the nation’s first transcontinental railroad was built, allowing for businesses to transport their goods from New York to California, while opening new opportunities for people to settle in the American West. It was the Irish immigrants working in the mills and factories of New England who helped the United States emerge as the leading manufacturing and economic power in the world, as well as helped keep law and order in New York and other big cities. The six million German immigrants who arrived in the country became the architects who built up cities such as Indianapolis, and the farmers who helped America become the world’s bread basket. Open borders meant a more-prosperous nation that built upon the settlement of Europeans before the Founding Fathers broke the nation away from Great Britain in 1776. And from these immigrants and their kin came some of the giants of American history: Steel titan Andrew Carnegie; U.S. Presidents Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy; the playwright Eugene O’Neill; and literary icons such as Kurt Vonnegut.

But the presence of these immigrants was not welcomed by the descendants of earlier émigrés who now made up the native-born American population. The biggest reason for the nativist sentiment? Pure religious bigotry. American Protestants were particularly fearful of the Irish, whose adherence to Roman Catholicism stoked ridiculous fears that the Pope to try to take over the nation; the fact that Catholicism became the nation’s most-populous religion by 1860 didn’t help matters. Native-born Americans were also afraid of the Chinese because of their unwillingness to ditch their religious beliefs to embrace Christianity.

Another reason for the hostility was one that had been part of American history since 1662, when the Virginia legislature passed a statute forcing all children of female African slaves into permanently servitude – even when their fathers were white: Old fashioned racialism. As with African-Americans (including freed blacks in the American North), Irish and Chinese immigrants were unfairly accused of stoking violence and prostitution in big cities such as New York even when lawlessness in those communities – along with dueling volunteer police and fire departments – were coin of the realm long before immigration arrived. The fact that Irish and Chinese immigrants were willing to work some of the less-desired jobs in the economy for lower wages furthered stirred up ire against them; by the end of the 19th century, the first wave of the modern trade union movement disdained immigrants (as well as African-Americans and others who weren’t white or of Anglo-Saxon descent).

By 1840, nativist sentiment led the American Bible Society to successfully push for the nation’s public schools to force children – including those from Catholic homes – to read the Protestant King James Version of the Old and New Testaments. By the 1850s, these fears, exacerbated by the misperception that Pope Pius IX advocated for revolutionary unrest throughout Europe at the end of the previous decade, stoked the emergence of the Know-Nothing movement, which successfully elected mayors, governors, and even took control of legislatures in states such as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania. Those politicians then worked diligently to bar immigrants from municipal jobs, as well as agitated riots against Irish Catholics all throughout the nation.


In southern states such as Maryland and Alabama, nativist sentiment often formed common cause with support of slavery, playing a major part in stirring the rancor between North and South over the evil practice that led to the American Civil War. Meanwhile in California and other parts of the West, Chinese immigrants were accused of promoting prostitution (even though nearly all émigrés from China before the 20th century were men), and subject to endless bigotry.

These nativists would make sure to ensure their legacy would live on through policies that still shape immigration and American public education.

Starting in 1882, anti-Chinese sentiment led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred the emigration of laborers from China to the United States. By 1917, Congress further codified racial, ethnic, and religious into immigration law by creating the Asiatic Barred Zone to keep the Chinese — and this time, other Asians — from arriving to the nation’s shores. Four years later in 1921, amid a wave of Klu Klux Klan- and nativist-inspired bigotry against those who weren’t White, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant, Congress enacted the Emergency Quota Act, the first of many quotas, restricting the number of Russian, Polish, Irish, Italian and other European, and Asian Ă©migrĂ©s. A British immigrant, most-often Protestant and white, was welcomed; a Russian (who clearly wasn’t either) was not.

By the time of the Great Depression, the bigotry shifted to another group of Catholics, Mexican immigrants, who were targeted out of fear that they supposedly took jobs from whites. The bigotry – especially in California and Texas, states that had previously been parts of Mexico (and already home to Latino populations) led to the By the 1940s, it had lessened largely because of the need for additional labor as a result of the Second World War (as well as the fact that Japanese émigrés and their American-born children became the subjects of nativist sentiment). The Bracero program for contract workers brought in Mexicans to work as migrant farmers for a time, then return home when they made enough income to feed their families.

Eventually the civil rights movement of the 1960s would end up changing attitudes about explicitly codifying bigotry into law; by 1965, the federal government ended outright race- and ethnicity-based quotas once and for all. But the legacy of the bigotry remains in place today.

Meanwhile racialism and religious bigotry began shaping American public education much earlier – and continued even longer.

The first Zip Code Education law was passed in 1833 when Connecticut legislators, scandalized by the fact that the legendary educator Prudence Crandall took black children from outside the state into her private school, passed the Black Law restricting school choice. School residency laws would eventually become the norm. Starting in the 1840s, Protestants adapted the Unitarian-influenced civic religion in schools favored by Horace Mann in order to drive out foreign “papist” influences and put Catholics under their thumb. In Philadelphia, for example, Protestants burned down five churches after the diocesan bishop demanded that children of Catholics be exempted from having to read the King James Bible; in New York State, efforts by Gov. William Seward to provide funding to Catholic schools was met with the kind of bigotry that was otherwise reserved for African Americans of the time.

Then in the 1870s, the particular hostility toward Catholics (as well as other Protestant denominations) led to the passage of what would eventually be called Blaine Amendments restricting public dollars from being used to help taxpayers finance the education of their children in private schools. By that point, Catholic dioceses and parishes, driven by the Eliot School Rebellion two decades earlier, had launched their own schools and formed what was the alternate provider for both their own parishioners (as well as poor and minority kids). But this was challenged in 1922 when the Klu Klux Klan, capitalizing on anti-immigrant sentiment, succeeded in convincing voters in Oregon to pass a law barring Catholic families from sending their kids to diocesan schools. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually overturned the ballot measure. But such religious bigotry remained, especially with schools forcing students to pray, and oppression against Jehovah’s Witnesses for their refusal to swear an Oath of Allegiance they believe is idolatry.

Religious bigotry would then join forces with racism. Starting in the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, blacks in the American South would struggle to obtain access to just obtain education. From 1865 to 1870, for example, agents from the Freedman’s Bureau in Staunton, Va. (where my great-grandmother was born at the turn of the 20th century), struggled to obtain resources just to build schools. By the end of the 1870s, blacks would feel the full brunt of racial bigotry with the passage of the first Jim Crow laws restricting their children from attending schools with whites. It would take the efforts of teachers such as Mary McLeod Bethune and Booker T. Washington (the latter with the help of Julius Rosenwald of Sears, Roebuck & Co. fame) to open schools providing what was then considered education to black kids of that time. American Indians would also take the brunt starting in 1879 with the opening of the Carlisle Indian Boarding School, which aimed to assimilate Native children into American culture; by the mid-20th century, the agency now known as the U.S. Bureau of Indian Education opened 26 such schools while another 450 were operated by missionaries on the federal government’s behalf, subjecting Native kids to physical abuse, molestation, and substandard instruction.

The most-persistent racialism and religious bigotry in American public education came in 1918, when a committee of teachers and school leaders convened by the National Education Association decided that children of immigrants (along with blacks and the poor) were not equipped to do well in the college preparatory model of high schools championed two decades earlier by legendary Harvard University President Charles Eliot and his Committee of Ten. Instead of providing all kids with college-oriented learning (as Eliot supported), these educators pushed what would become the comprehensive high school model, with middle-class white kids (along with those few children of Ă©migrĂ©s deemed worthy of such curricula) getting what was then considered high-quality learning, while poor and minority kids were relegated to shop classes and less-challenging coursework. By the time your editor’s grandmother (one of the last of her generation to obtain the kind of college prep education championed by Eliot) graduated from Mineola High School in New York State’s Nassau County in 1942, the comprehensive high school was dominant. This rationing of education and soft bigotry of low expectations for poor and minority kids would eventually trickle down into the rest of American public education in the form of ability-tracking and even special education.

A series of court rulings, most-notably the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, would eventually spur the end of official state-sanctioned racial bigotry. By the 1970s, outright bigotry against other children – including Native kids who were forced-fed substandard and assimilation-driven curricula – had ended as well.

But when it comes to immigration and American public education, the legacy of racialism and religious bigotry remains in place to this very day.

The race-based quotas still shape immigration today through the equally arbitrary and 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 in whether they can become citizens as on their employment prospects and their familial relationship to someone already on American soil. It is why it can take 20 years for a plumber from the Philippines with a brother in the states 20 years before qualifying for naturalization. The evidence has long-ago shown that immigrants are strong contributors the nation’s economy – especially in the form of the children of émigrés such as Google’s Sergey Brin, who become America’s top entrepreneurs and corporate leaders – and contribute more income into federal and state coffers than they cost in terms of education. Yet nativist sentiment – fueled both by less-than-thoughtful populist conservatives and private-sector unions on the political left, often with not-so-WASPY names – keeps those barriers in place. And the damage can be seen in the form of children of undocumented immigrants succeeding in school being denied entry into universities – and even being deported from the country that has been their home all of their lives.

Meanwhile the consequences of America’s racial and religious bigotry still damages the country in the form of an education crisis in which 1.1 million children from the original Class of 2012 will drop out of school and fall into poverty and prison. The consequences are clear in the overdiagnosis of young black and Latino (along with young white men) as learning disabled, relegated to special ed ghettos where their futures never recover. Mothers and fathers such as Hamlet and Olesia Garcia, Kelley Williams-Bolar, and Tanya McDowell, end up facing prison time because of Zip Code Education laws that keep them from providing their children with high-quality education. School reformers have managed to turn back some of those policies, most notably last month in the Indiana Supreme Court’s unanimous verdict upholding the Hoosier State’s school voucher program. Yet traditionalists – including descendants of immigrants named Weingarten, Ravitch, and Van Roekel – continue to perpetuate this legacy of bigotry by opposing the expansion of school choice and Parent Power.

The damaging legacy of bigotry that flows into the lives of immigrants and into American public education is one that both immigration reform advocates and the school reform movement are working to overcome. This is why we must fight so hard for our children to get all that they need to write their own stories. It is also why reformers on both sides need to join together to help stop policies that cheat our children out of better lives.