El Pueblo Unido? The Intersection of Public Education and Immigrant Rights

The May Day rally at Armory Park was a good event.  I was once again impressed with the initiative of individual activists I’ve met through work in the Parent-Teacher-Student Community Coalition, who came prepared to leaflet the crowd and involve even more people in the fight, especially Latino parents.  I was bemused by a completely unknown woman who tried to hand a leaflet about the Wednesday meeting to me, and also about a comment praising the stark simplicity and yet the easy familiarity of the leaflet—especially when both people had no idea that I was the designer of said leaflet.  And, I was impressed by the number of Latinos at the event—albeit somewhat separate from the organized left forces, as per usual, but nonetheless a real presence.  And, it puts front and center a question that I think must be addressed: what is the relation of the struggle for public education—and especially of teachers—to the immigrant rights struggle?

It’s been a recurring question: if the Providence school population is majority Latino, why was that not clearly manifested in the audiences leading up to last Thursday night’s disastrous meeting?  And more importantly, how do we get more Latino parents involved in the organizing we’ve been doing?  The statistics and the anecdotes start to pile up: first, the tale of the Latino parents who had heard nothing of the school closings (back when they were announced to much fanfare).  Next, the statistic that more than half of Providence students live in homes where English is not the primary language.  Then, the statistic that 88% of Providence teachers are non-minority, i.e. white, practically the complete inverse of the student population—and with it, the suspicion that most teachers are completely disengaged from the actual living conditions of their students, lacking in sympathy for precisely those with whom they have the most in common.  Ferdinand Rodriguez’s comment on one of my earlier posts was most instructive in this regard.

But I think we also need to advance the question to the broadest social level.  We are talking about a generalized attack on the working class, not just of Providence, but of the entire U.S. (and really the entire world); not just the teachers, but the parents and students; not just public sector workers, but private and informal sectors as well.  It’s certainly true that “el pueblo unido jamás será vencido”, but there’s a lot of conditionality in getting the pueblo to be unido.  In the case of Providence teachers and parents, there’s a gulf that has to be bridged between the mostly white, citizen teachers whose primary language is English, and the many immigrant parents and family members whose citizenship status could be one of many things, and whose primary language is not English.  Like Ferdinand, I don’t doubt that there are many white teachers in the Providence system who understand and are sympathetic to these questions, at least at a basic level; but I also don’t doubt that there are many who have little or no understanding or sympathy for the plight of a student whose parents constantly have to worry about la migra.

The Immigrant Rights Movement: A Brief Overview

I don’t pretend here to give an exhaustive account or analysis of the state of immigrant rights in the U.S.  But I would like to give a brief outline of what I believe to be some important factors in parsing the situation, so that activists in the struggle for public education can start to come to an understanding of some of the issues involved.  I personally was deeply involved in the movement in 2006 and 2007; since that time, various factors including but not limited to changes in my personal situation and tough times within the immigrant rights movement have kept me more on the sidelines.  So, I gladly invite and strongly encourage anyone with more direct knowledge to add to or correct my account.

Without going too far back into history—there’s always a back-story to the back-story—let’s start with 2006, and the infamous Sensenbrenner bill, a proposed law in the US House of Representatives that would have criminalized all 12 million or so undocumented immigrants in the US at the time.  Prior to 2006, an immigrant without documents was committing a violation of immigration regulations, i.e. a civil infraction, not a crime.  Sensenbrenner wanted to change this, and he had the backing of a rabid right-wing in the Republican Party.  In response to this outrageous racist attack, millions of immigrant workers took to the streets in several mega-marches, culminating in the magnificent mass marches on May Day 2006.  That day constituted an actual general strike of immigrant workers—though this strike was utterly ignored by the mainstream English-language media in this country, and thus invisible to most white, English-speaking workers.  Nonetheless, the struggle successfully defeated the Republican Right, and the Sensenbrenner bill was trashed.  I have had few feelings in my life as exhilarating as the feeling of marching with 25,000 people in Providence, immigrants and citizens, workers, young and old, marching on the State House in an unstoppable wave of solidarity.

Unfortunately, that was not the end of the story.  While the Republican Right was defeated, it was not the only “other side” from the immigrant rights movement.  Shortly thereafter, the business community got its own legislation introduced, an immigration bill known as the Kennedy-McCain bill that would have provided limited legalization to a number of immigrants in the US, while forcing others to remain in the shadows and still others to become virtual indentured servants under a “guest worker” program.  Note the co-sponsors of this bill: while the Republican Right opposed it and eventually stymied its progress, it was supported by the leadership of the GOP, including then-president George W. Bush, who broke from the racist populist base of his party to side with big business.  The problem is that the immigrant rights movement also fractured over this question—many of the liberal NGOs in the immigrant rights movement preferred to support Democratic Party politicians instead of criticize and reject a bill that would have institutionalized a lower class lacking in essential human rights among immigrant workers.  At that point, the debate in Congress stalled, and has yet to be taken up again (and frankly, I fear for our side when it is taken up again).

Thereafter began a period of fear and terror for immigrants, as racist vigilantes started to make demands on local politicians, and localities started to pass their own “immigration legislation” without regard to the un-Constitutionality of these laws.  Meanwhile, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE) started carrying out a greater number of high-profile immigration raids, and started to detain immigrants in mass numbers before deporting them.  One of the most spectacular of those raids happened in New Bedford in March, 2007.  The raid ruthlessly separated infants from their mothers, many of them Guatemalans from remote areas who came here seeking refuge from the civil war there—many of them not even speaking Spanish, let alone English.  That raid was followed by others, such as the raid at Rhode Island courthouses in July 2007 (I think…or was it 2008?), not to mention the numerous individual detentions that resulted from things like routine traffic stops.  Even the father of the first child born in Rhode Island on New Years Day in 2008 was detained and later deported—just for getting his picture in the paper!  Candidate Obama ran a very immigrant-friendly campaign in 2008, and when he took office, the high-profile raids did come to an end; but shockingly, the number of detentions in the Obama era has hit record levels, surpassing even the numbers deported under Bush in 2007 and 2008.

From this point on, Rhode Island started to move in this direction as well.  Under Governor Carcieri, the state started to participate in the 287 (g) program, which allowed state police to act in concert with immigration authorities, essentially deputizing the police to do work outside their actual jurisdiction.  This was de facto criminalization of immigrants—prior to this, immigrants arrested by the civil police were dealt with in that system, but now they were being sent directly to ICE for instant deportation.  I remember the scene in March, 2008 when Carcieri put through his executive order.  We used to put up a table of literature and sell Socialist Worker and Obrero Socialista on the corner of Chalkstone Blvd and Academy Ave., right in front of La Poblanita Bakery.  We always had good sales there, especially of the Obrero Socialista—but when that order came out, the place practically became a ghost town, and our audience disappeared (or was disappeared).  The end of the Carcieri era and the election of Chafee brought the rescinding of the executive order.  However, as soon as Chafee undid what Carcieri put in place, new Attorney General Kilmartin decided to implement the Secure Communities program, essentially maintaining the old reign of terror through a different state agency.  So is it any wonder, then, that immigrant parents might be hesitant to go into a school, i.e. a state-run institution where the officials may not speak their language and might even be under some sort of pressure to act as immigration enforcement agents?

How should teachers respond?

There is much more to say about the question of immigrant parents—I have not even touched on the whole question of linguistic justice, i.e. the basic human right that students from non-English-speaking households in Providence should have to a bi-lingual education.  So again, I invite everyone with greater knowledge than I have to contribute to the description and analysis of the plight of immigrant students and parents.

The question here is stated above, and frankly it’s of a piece with the general questions we’ve all been asking, about how to mobilize greater numbers of teachers generally, and about how to organize parents in support of the teachers and the schools.  A crucial first step to mobilizing parent support for teachers is to educate teachers about the conditions their students and their parents face.  I’m not exactly certain how to go about this—I imagine it could start with a workshop or a teach-in aimed at teachers and public education activists about the state of immigrant rights, led by prominent immigrant rights activists.  From there, I think there’s a special role for Latino and other immigrant teachers, teachers of Spanish, and sympathetic and activist-minded white teachers, in raising the issues of immigrant rights among their own colleagues, and mobilizing them in defense of students and parents.  It must start this way: as Ferdinand points out, immigrant parents are already leary of people in official positions, particularly those who are white and speak only English.  They live under conditions of a much harsher oppression; to get them to stand up for those who are overall less oppressed requires a prior move on the part of the white, English-speaking teachers to prove in action that they stand on the side of the oppressed, and not on the side of the oppressors who happen to share their ethnic and linguistic heritage.  It is by no means impossible for there to be built a formidable solidarity between immigrant parents and white teachers; but it is not automatic, and it is not a situation in which teachers and parents start on a level playing field.  It actually requires those who are on the higher ground to level the playing field before those on the lower ground will join them.

Imagine that the teachers in a school where a student’s mother or father has been detained by ICE rally around that student, building community awareness of and support for that student and his or her family.  That is precisely the type of solidarity that would advance the cause of organizing parents in support of teachers.  Is this impossible?  There is a scene in the French film The Class (2008, Entre les Murs in French) in which an immigrant student’s mother has been detained by the immigration authorities.  The teachers then take up a collection to help support the family of the student—against the notion of the student’s mother having “broken the law”, etc.  I think this sort of thing is possible here—but it must be actively organized, and will be most effectively organized by those who are also the most energetic defenders of teachers, unions, and public education in general.


About riredteacher

I'm a foreign language teacher and socialist in Rhode Island.
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2 Responses to El Pueblo Unido? The Intersection of Public Education and Immigrant Rights

  1. Eloise M O'Shea-Wyatt says:

    Well Brian I do agree that teachers need to be educated about the conditions of their students lives. I think that they must learn to see that they have become their students in the eyes of those who are trying to destroy public education. The words used to describe teachers, lazy, greedy, incompetent, and of course easy life with little effort. These are the same words used to describe poor people on welfare. When they come to terms with that notion then they may get to the point where they see the students and their families as allies in the struggle. Right now I believe the teachers are hanging on to the idea that they are different and their students are THEY. Don’t get me wrong there are alot of good decent teachers, but there is also alot of racism among Providence teachers. So right now the teachers are afraid of being connected to community groups that are fighting they want to be seen as “professional”. They just don’t get it, that those who want to get rid of them don’t care if they are all Jesus Christ.

  2. Pingback: Racism and Corporate Reform | Rhode Island Red Teacher

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