Something Less Than “Thoughts and Prayers” for Undocumented Students

Guy Johnson | Sr. Program Director, Federal and National Networks, Partners for Each and Every Child


I am the child of a native-born United States citizen and a South American immigrant. My large family has had a complicated relationship with “legal immigration status” in the United States. While I am a fluent Spanish speaker, I am tall and light-eyed with fair complexion, and a Staten Island accent colors my pronunciation.

The agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) at the border and in our states do not yet have field-ready tools to measure blood quantum. And so, I “pass” a test that many of my closest kin would fail: a visual and auditory inspection that government officials administer every day — in any variety of settings — at our borders and inland.

Some of you have been reading with incredulity and disgust the newspapers, newsfeeds, and Twitter threads about the “immigration crisis” in the United States. What you have been reading — and perhaps avoiding — about “immigration enforcement” is, at heart, the latest manifestation of toxic and brutal white nationalism.

And the situation is very bad.

Now is the time to gather your righteous anger and moral fury and take action to undo the systems that are brutalizing undocumented, low-income immigrants from the nation’s borders to the steps of our schools.

This is the time to vote, to contact your member of Congress, to run for local political office, and to put your money, your time, and your effort behind those who will act on behalf of these marginalized, vulnerable people.

Reckless endangerment

Presently at issue is Betsy DeVos — the frequently confused and perhaps chronically perplexed Secretary of the United States Department of Education — who has spoken recklessly about how local school officials should have autonomy in deciding when to call on government agents to isolate, interrogate, and remove any child they suspect may not be in compliance with this country’s immigration laws.

Certainly, what Ms. DeVos said was unfortunate and misguided. The “good news” is that the Secretary’s comments may have come from ignorance in the purest sense. Indeed, it may be anticipated — perhaps expected — that a Secretary with no prior experience running an educational system, little or no prior schooling in educational jurisprudence or the reach of the country’s civil rights laws, and perhaps insufficient or insufficiently knowledgeable staff, may simply not know that it is well-settled case law that undocumented immigrant children may not be excluded from the classroom on the basis of their actual immigration status, and certainly not on  the basis of their suspected immigration status. If this is the case, then she and her aides can learn the truth. They can be educated.

Various individuals and organizations, including my own, are right to point out how apparently wrongheaded the Secretary’s comments were. They are correct to ask for clarification and to offer opportunities for greater enlightenment on the issue.

But how can we be satisfied with pruning the reachable branches of what appears to be a hulking and profoundly rotten tree?  

The distinction between “country” and “nation” is key to understanding what is at play: “Country” means a large group of people bound by the laws and norms of a shared government, a shared administrative state; “Nation” means a group of people that have a collective sense of fundamental identity that exists even outside of any particular form of government.

The Secretary’s comments might betray ignorance as to how our “country” is governed, but they are bracingly clear in their
judgement of who belongs and who does not belong to the “nation” she represents. Her alarmingly ignorant comments are possible — even likely— because they are rooted in matters of identity rather than concerns about governance.

What’s at stake

To better understand what this all means, look at the actions of the agency that Betsy DeVos is willing to set loose on our schools: an Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that recently announced it is separating parents from their children at the southern border; that operates with little oversight or transparency; that oversees detention centers where allegations of sexual violence and child abuse are recurrent and commonplace; and that works in concert with Customs and Border Protection officials that have stopped people as “suspected illegal immigrants” for the act of speaking Spanish.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently endorsed the idea of widespread student boycotts to protest Congress’ failure to address an epidemic of school shootings. Do the families ruthlessly divided at the border deserve any less? Do the long-term residents in our country who have been mercilessly pulled from spouses and children and forced on airplanes to other countries, the men, women, and children suffering in detestable conditions in detention centers, not merit even the hollow “thoughts and prayers” refrain so often offered by our political leaders in the face of calamity and loss?

How can we abide a public education official’s suggestion that schoolchildren be subjected to such treatment?

There is great peril in the chance that because these immigrants are brown and black and poor they are “outside” of the nation that Betsy DeVos and some in the administration represent. This kind of political philosophy is inherently self-devouring. It degrades us all.

When the time comes for one tiny drop to be found wanting in the rest of us, some cause found to judge us undeserving of humane treatment, what then?

Surely we cannot continue to tolerate this.