—Photo: Craig Sherod Photography
Bruce Fuller, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, works on how schools and civic activists push to advance pluralistic communities. He is a regular opinion contributor to edweek.org where he trades views with Lance Izumi, on the other side of the political aisle. Read Lance Izumi’s response to this essay.
America’s high schools rarely offer a warm cocoon for our youths, secluded from pressing social ills. Neighborhood disparities deepen wide gaps in learning. The cowardice of pro-gun politicians leads to bloodshed inside classrooms.
President Donald Trump chose Easter Sunday to again vilify the children of immigrants, falsely claiming that dangerous “caravans” of immigrants are crossing the border to take advantage of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. This follows the president’s implications earlier this year that young immigrants were fording the Rio Grande River simply to join the cross-border gang MS-13 and infiltrate our schools.
The future of DACA, which covers less than a quarter of the 3.6 million undocumented residents who arrived before their 18th birthday, remains uncertain. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal on the Trump administration’s attempt to unilaterally end the program, leaving DACA recipients in limbo as the legal battle works its way through the lower appeals courts. That didn’t stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from traveling to California to warn city officials they cannot provide safe sanctuary for these youths.
But students are pushing back against Trump’s efforts to inject fear and prejudice into the nation’s high schools. Hundreds walked out of Stephen F. Austin High School in Houston last month, after Dennis Rivera-Sarmiento, a senior, was detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
Rivera-Sarmiento had been riding high, recently accepted to computer science programs at Texas A&M University and Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas for next fall. “His teachers know him as kind and respectful,” one school counselor described in a Houston Chronicle op-ed, “and as the serious-faced kid with a mop of curly hair that they look forward to having in class.”
But in a flash of anger, taunted by hostile classmates for being an immigrant, according the school counselor’s account, Rivera-Sarmiento knocked a fellow student to the ground. A campus guard quickly tamed the scuffle. Then, Houston school officials inexplicably passed Rivera-Sarmiento to ICE officers, who continue to detain him.
Students also rebelled over a case in Durham, N.C., where Wilden Acosta was nabbed by ICE agents one morning in 2016 as he walked to Riverside High School.
Trump’s condemnation of immigrant children is ironic, since they often outperform native-born peers in school."
He was a popular kid who was “always smiling,” his classmate Pamela told me. She and fellow students—deploying the reporting acumen they learned in journalism class—broadcast details of the case, traveled to Washington to meet with government officials, and raised the $10,000 bail necessary to spring Acosta from federal detention. Bryan Christopher, adviser for school paper, described these students as “natural leaders and community minded,” and said they mobilized their “writing skills, using the internet and social media.”
Pamela herself was just 2 years old when her parents traveled on work permits to Durham from Mexico to work in a fish-packing plant. Pamela never saw the asterisk stamped next to her American Dream, until she applied for college aid—without a Social Security number. “It first hit me,” she recalled, “Oh, I have this goal of going to college, and I can’t do that.”
When listening to Trump, she feels angry. “He’s judging our race or ethnicity based on the actions of a few people,” Pamela said. “The president can say these things, so [others] can talk like that, too.”
Trump’s condemnation of immigrant children is ironic, since they often outperform native-born peers in school. My own research details how the children of immigrants on average begin school with great respect for teachers and agile cooperative skills, many of them raised by Asian or Latino parents who live by traditionally pro-family values. These kids often spend more time on homework and achieve better grades than their peers, motivated by all that their parents sacrifice for their children’s future.
Take Susan, another inspiring student, who arrived to Koreatown at age 5, west of downtown Los Angeles. Her parents spoke no English but found the best public schools, sending Susan over the Hollywood Hills each morning to a high school that offered Advanced Placement courses.
She won admission to the selective Irvine campus of the University of California, but then missed the window to gain DACA status. Now 21, Susan has been denied paid internships, since she cannot obtain a work permit.
Many DACA recipients do find promising paths. Pamela earned admission to Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. “where I can feel open and relate to everyone, like I do with my friends.” An immigration judge delayed the young Acosta’s deportation in January, after he married his sweetheart from Riverside High.
But for many others, the daily grind of uncertainty and shaming by politicians makes the American Dream all the more elusive. “It’s demeaning,” Susan told me. The president and his agenda makes her feel that she’s “not good enough, not worthy enough.”