Equity & Diversity Opinion

Alabama Law Creates Immigration Panic in Schools

By Anthony Cody — October 02, 2011 3 min read
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Headlines from Alabama tell us that the latest “education reform” there is making sure we know exactly how much the state is spending to educate the children of “illegal” immigrants. According to a new law, parents are required to present documentation when registering their children to attend school. While the law does not require school officials to turn in the names of “illegals,” it has sparked widespread fear among immigrant parents, and many have withdrawn their children from school. Meanwhile, Texas governor Rick Perry’s poll numbers in the Republican primary have fallen after he said that members of his party who do not support free education for students who are undocumented “have no heart.”

Why is it that in times of economic hardship, some people take aim at those who have the least power and wealth?

This morning I caught a ten minute trailer for the documentary, Nickel and Dimed, based on journalist Barbara Ehrenreich’s experiment several years ago, when she sought to survive for a year at a variety of minimum wage jobs. She worked as a housekeeper, a Walmart greeter, a waitress, and lived in the lowest rent housing she could find. But in spite of no major catastrophes, and no children to raise, she fell behind, and found herself repeatedly not able to make ends meet.

In one scene in Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich is discussing the issue of poverty with a young Yale graduate, clearly raised in the realm of privilege. He says, “What about philanthropy? Public service? A lot of those (wealthy) people devote millions and millions and millions of dollars to building houses in poor communities.”

Ehrenreich responds:

Don't tell me about philanthropy. The real philanthropists in our society are the people who work for less than they can actually live on. Because they are giving of their time, and their energy, and their talents, all the time, so that people like you can be dressed well and fed cheaply and so on. They are giving to YOU.

But public services for poor people, and those of us who work as public employees, have become big targets as some conservatives seek to “shrink government,” and provide even more tax relief for the wealthy.

One of the reasons for some people to oppose funding for public schools, at least in my state of California, is the fact that almost fifty percent of the students enrolled are Latino. Judging from hostile comments posted on newspaper articles about education, and from Rick Perry’s recent troubles, a certain portion of the population believes we are coddling people who have no right to be here.

According to these folks, the greatest social parasites are low-paid immigrants, and government employees. It’s a wonder, isn’t it? Two groups of people who work the hardest, and contribute the most to society, find ourselves with targets on our backs when times get tough.

It has been a long time since we have had social unrest on a wide scale. When people are pushed into a corner, when their sense of a future is taken away, and they lack even a chance at success, they eventually will rebel. Our public schools have been one vehicle by which one generation can hope that the next will do better. In Alabama, we are seeing that taken away for many students. And Rick Perry’s chance to be the Republican nominee may founder on his political error of defending education for immigrants, making me wonder how far conservatives may take us down this path.

We are reminded in Nickel and Dimed of a quote from Voltaire: “The comfort of the rich depends upon the abundance of the poor.” But events on Wall Street and across the country are reminding us that the poor must acquiesce, because in their very abundance, they have a latent power that lacks only the will to act cohesively to be made real. And as teachers, police officers, fire fighters and other public servants find our pensions diminished, our pay cut, and our due process rights removed, we may have much more in common with the poor than the wealthy.

What do you think of the Alabama law requiring schools to inquire about the immigration status of students? How should our schools respond to the needs of immigrants?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.