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When Jose Doesn't Come to School

In Trump's 'Merica, the damage we are making to immigrant children is immense

Richard Iannuzzi's picture
Apr 07, 2017

In any other year, if Jose wasn’t in my classroom in the morning I wouldn’t be alarmed. It isn’t unusual for a boy of 12 to be called to the fields to work beside his parents when it’s planting time or harvest time, or just to be home to care for younger siblings, so no reason to be alarmed, in any other year. In a low wealth and high need school district, homelessness and transience keep families moving around, so if his sister, Rosa, is also not in school- that might explain the absence and I would accept the reality, in any other year.

But this isn’t any other year. This is the first school year where a candidate for national office catapulted to the top by race-baiting, fear mongering, immigrant bashing and an unhealthy dose of misogyny. A candidate who’s lies captivated a constituency that desperately sought change. In some areas of the country it was thought that change meant reviving industries that had long ago out lived there purpose and where the environmental risks heavily outweighed the economic benefits. In other parts of the country, bitterness was all that remained after ruthless robber barons long ago stripped the land and the workers of their wealth and their dignity, leaving behind a rusting wasteland. These emotions, coupled with the feeling that a whole set of cultural values were being ignored, brought that candidate to the highest office in the land, president of the United States.

So when Jose doesn’t come to class, it is in this context that there is an immediate reason to fear: reason to fear for the safety of young children; reason to fear for the ability of a family unit to stay intact; reason to fear for those whose lives will be turned upside down after years and sometimes decades of following the rules. And, reason to fear that the same ruthless gang that a family member fled, crossing borders in the dark of night, will now welcome her or him back with violence and brutality.

Perhaps worse of all, reason to fear that our promise to be the beacon of light for those “yearning to breathe free” would prove no longer to be true.

Issues concerning immigration are real. While George W. Bush was president, over two million people were deported, and another 2.9 million were deported during Obama’s presidency (including those arrested who chose to “voluntarily return”). All this suggests a system that doesn’t work. But, the immigrant isn't the problem; it's the system we use to handle immigration that has failed us.

Threatening to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants and labeling them “bad hombres” isn’t a solution. It’s a signal, a deliberate and calculated malicious signal. A signal to the most ignorant to take the law into their own hands, and a signal that misleads the naïve and weak to fear for their own safety. Sadly, it is also a signal to many immigrants to shelter in place and to avoid public attention.

For Jose and Rosa, avoiding public attention means staying away from school. This is not good news. It will have a lasting negative impact on their future and their ability in later life to contribute to the growth of our economy. Should they choose to return to school, fear that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents will one day raid their home and take away a parent—or both parents—will weigh heavily on each of them, severely handicapping their ability to learn and succeed in furthering their education.

Organized labor has nothing to fear and much to gain from immigration. The labor movement was built on the shoulders of immigrants from Joe Hill to Cesar Chavez. We know that as immigrants enter our society, they most often fill low wage jobs that otherwise remain vacant. Statistics show that they don't compete with local workers, but rather they fill poorly paying jobs in fields ignored by resident low wage earners (housekeepers and landscapers vs. truck drivers and cashiers). In fact, data used by the Wall Street Journal indicates that each immigrant creates 1.2 jobs. When the impact on wages is examined, the only factor that is crystal clear is that wages increase, not by banning immigrants from work sites but by organizing all workers into strong unions!

Education and Organized Labor share an important history. They meet at the crossroads of human rights and social justice. Legitimate concerns about immigration policy must be addressed through the lens of social justice not tyranny. The rights of immigrants, like the rights of all workers, must be viewed through the lens of human rights not through the words of a bully misusing the powers of the office. Immigrant rights are human rights; worker rights are human rights. Organized labor needs to realize that educating and organizing the immigrant work force is the key to labor's own future.

When Jose doesn’t come to school, we should all be concerned. Education is a human right, and creating a situation or a populist culture, that ultimately prevents Rosa and Jose from seeking an education is denying that right. When we allow any right to be taken away from another human being, we risk losing our own rights.

In this school year, when Jose doesn’t come to school ... each of us has suffered a loss.

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