We are born with dreams in our hearts,
looking for better days ahead.
At the gates we are given new papers,
our old clothes are taken
and we are given overalls like mechanics wear.
We are given shots and doctors ask questions.
Then we gather in another room
where counselors orient us to the new land
we will now live in. We take tests.
Some of us were craftsmen in the old world,
good with our hands and proud of our work.
Others were good with their heads.
They used common sense like scholars
use glasses and books to reach the world.
But most of us didn’t finish high school.
. . .
But in the end, some will just sit around
talking about how good the old world was.
Some of the younger ones will become gangsters.
Some will die and others will go on living
without a soul, a future, or a reason to live.
Some will make it out of here with hate in their eyes,
but so very few make it out of here as human
as they came in, they leave wondering what good they are now
as they look at their hands so long away from their tools,
as they look at themselves, so long gone from their families,
so long gone from life itself, so many things have changed.
—Excerpted from the poem titled “Immigrants in Our Own Land“ by Jimmy Santiago Baca
Born with dreams in their hearts yet finding themselves so long gone from life itself, many U.S. immigrants write stories in education that embody narratives of intrepid complexity—of dreams deferred born in hearts, resurrected in minds, yet too often left to die in classrooms across the country.
It was only 50 years ago that the US congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. The legislation was based firmly on a Dream, a hard-fought-for promise that we as a country might progress past our laws, which at the time placed harsh quotas on who could immigrate onto our shores and traverse freely the expanse of our contested borders.
National immigration policies of the past, as have been well documented, worked to exclude Asians and Africans while preferring northern and western European immigrants over southern and eastern ones. The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, however, marked a stark departure from a past rooted in xenophobia and extreme nationalism. Yet, even with the passing of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, the national policy on immigration was far from perfect. Like prior immigration laws it held firmly to provisions that discriminated against gay people. Despite its flaw, however, it set in motion a conversation on immigration tied to equity, a conversation from which we should never retreat.
Fast forward 50 years. Today the immigration conversation is as polarizing as it is contention and dated. With politicians on the political left affirming deportation as a chief aspect of their national immigration policy, even U.S. liberals are complicit in reifying deficit restrictions on human mobility that shape immigration as a moral problem as opposed to a national promise. The rhetoric from the left is sadly yet remarkably familiar. The refrain, “Go to the back of the line,” feels far too reminiscent of a by gone era, “Go to the back of the bus.” The hyper insistences on “English only,” too, often feels peculiarly redolent of “For Whites only.”
On the political right the conversation doesn’t get much better, does it? It focuses on fences and walls, the will to break people and kick them out of a country instead of welcoming them in. The ironies are striking and sad: a nation of strangers condemning strangers, a band of refugees banning would be refugees, those who might find safety within our borders. We educators must respond.
Those of us who work with children understand all too well the visceral consequences of closing off our society, particularly to children. It’s only been a few months since we’ve witnessed the lifeless body of a solitary child washed up on a foreign shore. Searching for life, that child found doors closed. In the open wilderness of flight, death (not mercy) found that child. How many more children will we have to lose before we begin to modify the conversations, before we amend our immigration policies and laws? How many more children will have to wash up on foreign shores before we understand that immigration is not solely the responsibility of the immigrant but should also be seen as the obligation of each of us who might receive her—teachers and schools who are obliged to educate all students documented and undocumented who arrive from places beyond our visible borders?
On December 5, 2015, NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools convened a conference to take up these incredibly important questions, to necessarily make them our own. The event was well attended, with educators and concerned intellectuals, immigrant students and their immigrant parents and bevy of others participants concerned with immigration and education. Some of the attendees were authorized; others were not. Regardless of their documentation status, each attendee came understanding that something needed to happen to interrupt the cycles of miseducation plaguing the most vulnerable immigrant youth and the glaring dismissal of immigrant populations in the contexts of U.S. schools.
Indeed, a low-income foreign-born student whose primary language is not English is more likely to be remediated, placed into special education, forced out of school, and so on than their domestically-born peers. Research has shown that while systems of disparity shape the educational narratives of low-income immigrant students, disparities in employment, health, housing, incarceration, and so on persist beyond schools and classrooms. In spite of the success of the NYU Metro Center immigration conference, we in education would do well to acknowledge that the extent to which we can be responsive to students who come to us from expanded borders will be measured by how well we understand their shifting realities.
The conference left attendees more with question than solutions: In the many contexts of New York City immigration, we raised a series of pertinent questions: How well do we understand immigration in relation to demographic shifts in New York City schools? How might new knowledge about such shifts empower new solutions for radically responding to the unique needs of those children who come to us not just as guests or neighbors but as relatives?
In raising these questions, we in education must reject the notion that immigration is just an immigrant issues, that the educational solutions to disproportionality in immigrant education are more about immigrants assimilating to us than we in education learning vastly how to respond to and accommodate them. We must do our parts! We must understand, asking how might we support other human beings who live profoundly among us and in the faint, shrill shadow of an ageless statue that welcomed them in.
Immigration in education must be about understanding, and from the basis of understanding it must be about engaging more possible solutions that might transform schools and communities in ways that restore the human soul, our collective futures, and give the many people lost without life or lands reason to live.
As we move now from research to resolution, it will become important for each of us to carve out that slice of the planet that looks most fertile for the demographic shifts and historical realities that the stories of immigration and education in NYC will newly narrate. In terms of resolution, it might mean abandoning certain movements in education such as the common core and other policies that treat all students the same. It might mean that we tailor curriculum and coursework to each student’s unique needs and skill levels, a version of what is known as “competency-based education“—a form of personalized learning. This type of education, according to the U.S. government, is geared toward enabling all students to master skills at their own pace and according to the unique realities and contingent circumstances that could define education with more porous, more available opportunities.
In this resolution, we do not treat immigrant youth as monolithic, understanding that there is no one immigrant story and, therefore, can be no one immigrant pedagogy or curriculum, policy or program for the matter. Rather, the conversation on demographic change and immigration in New York City and our our nation is complex. Thus the conversation on educating U.S. immigrant youth must also be complex . . . and more, it must become courageous.
David E. Kirkland is an associate professor of English and urban education at New York University. He is also Executive Director of NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools. Dr. Kirkland can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org.