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Immigration Policy and Public Education

Thursday, December 10, 2015   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Professional Educators of Tennessee
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Immigration Policy and Public Education [Download Article]



In light of recent deliberations among politicians and media, it is critically important that we focus on immigration that will have an impact on public education systems across the country. Our nation has always welcomed people to our shores. In fact, on the Statute of Liberty in New York Harbor there is a poem by Emma Lazarus to remind us of freedom and opportunity that says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”


Our nation’s security and immigration policy are federal responsibilities, yet it is has become another example of our federal government not meeting a legitimate need of American citizens. Thus the brunt is being borne by states and local communities. Recently Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery says in a legal opinion that federal law prevents Tennessee from refusing entry of refugees. In Nashville, for example, foreign-born residents have increased from 2.5 percent of its population a decade ago to more than 12 percent today. It is amazing how well Nashville’s public schools have succeeded in light of that statistic alone.


In the James Bond thriller Skyfall, M gave a speech where she describes seeing a different world than politicians. She labels what she sees as frightening. She says, “I'm frightened because our enemies are no longer known to us. They do not exist on a map. They're not nations, they're individuals. And look around you. Who do you fear? Can you see a face, a uniform, a flag? No! Our world is not more transparent now, it's more opaque! It's in the shadows. That's where we must do battle.” It is one of the most overlooked scenes in the movie, but incredibly insightful. This is the fear that most people feel when discussing the immigration issue. Who are we allowing in?


Our country was founded on principles that embrace people to legally come to our country. However, all immigrants should endeavor to learn and embrace our American culture and civic heritage, as well as our political customs. We are a nation that espouses freedom. We understand that freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. When you come to our shores, it is to embrace our American ideals, not to change them. Ronald Reagan once said: “Putting people first has always been America’s secret weapon. It’s the way we’ve kept the spirit of our revolutions alive a spirit that drives us to dream and dare, and take great risks for a greater good.”


We have established, and must enforce, the procedures of legal immigration and naturalization at the federal level. It is clear that our current immigration policies are failing, largely because we have not enforced what has been established or secured our borders. People now arriving on our borders anticipate asylum the minute they get into our country.


Nevertheless, we must require and strongly support a legal method of immigration. It is true that immigration is not always a question of law and order. It is also a problem for all of humanity. Immigrants, both legal and illegal, are real human beings. They are not merely a number or statistic. The recent wave of illegal children crossing our borders is alarming. They are being sent by their parents, by questionable means, and encompass the hopes and dreams of their families.


In many ways, immigrants are doing what almost any of us would do if our own children were starving, countries were unsafe, or if they have no hope for the future. And too often in our discussion about immigration, that perception is lacking. Who among us would not do whatever was necessary to see that our children were safe, had food or a chance for a better future? However well mean-meaning, what are the ramifications of these children immigrating to our country and our state for public education? State laws that are designed to marginalize immigrant families in the name of deterring illegal immigration have largely been declared unconstitutional.


For example, in 1982, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Plyler vs. Doe that children in our country here illegally have the same right to attend public schools as other citizens. In addition, these children are obliged to attend school until they reach a mandatory age. So there will be an impact in whatever state that these children reside, including here in Tennessee.


The Plyler ruling made clear that public schools could not deny admission to any student. Nor could they treat any student differently or prevent the right of access to school. In addition, public schools cannot require students or parents to disclose their immigration status. Data by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families showed Tennessee has already received 760 of the more than 30,000 children in 2014, about 2.5 percent of the unaccompanied children crossing into the United States. And we anticipate similar numbers in 2015, and in 2016. The Pew Research Center projects that, by 2050, more than one-third of the nation’s schoolchildren “younger than 17 will either be immigrants themselves or the children of at least one parent who is an immigrant.”


Our public schools can meet any challenge. School personnel, especially administrators or educators involved with student intake activities have their hands tied on this issue. We expect it will continue to create numerous challenges at the local level, and in states. When it involves educating immigrant children, our educators and the community must work as partners and begin a conversation that addresses plans and practices capable of navigating any cultural divide, improving family engagement and reconsidering classroom strategies. Our federal policymakers should do their job and create a tenable immigration policy to safeguard our borders and create legal pathways to citizenship. Failure to do so merely continues bad policy and places public education squarely at the forefront of the immigration battle. 





JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Brentwood, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee. To schedule an interview please contact Audrey Shores, Director of Communications, at 1-800-471-4867 ext.102.

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