To DREAM, Perchance to Immigrate

—Michael A. Olivas

Recent U.S. Census figures have noted the rise in Latino births, resulting in the demographic developments that will make Latino children such a substantial public school population, over and above legal or unauthorized immigration.

Today, June 15th, the country celebrates the 30th birthday of the Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe. This landmark ruling from 1982 has made it possible for undocumented children to enroll in the nation’s public schools, and it has been widely acknowledged as a success story.

Copyright © 2012, ACLU.

When President Reagan and Congress enacted comprehensive immigration reform in 1986, it was possible for many of these children to become citizens. Even early opponents such as James Plyler, the Tyler, Texas superintendent, later indicated that he was happy the case turned out as it did, inasmuch as these children were permitted to stay and get an education.

The case continues to require vigilance because some states still attempt to enact their own laws on the schooling of undocumented children, as Alabama did when it passed a statute requiring registration of its schoolchildren. The legislators just wanted to put the fear of God (and “La Migra” – the immigration authorities) into the hearts of the parents, who were lured to Alabama to do the backbreaking work that others don’t do. The courts enjoined the provisions, although the desired damage had been done: frightened parents removed their children from the schools. In another recent incident, a Texas schoolteacher admonished a child that he should “go back to Mexico.” These kinds of events are newsworthy because they are relatively rare. But the fact is many of the targeted children excel in their academic and personal endeavors and win competitions and awards.

The ongoing debates in the Republican primaries over the DREAM Act — which would provide conditional citizenship to certain undocumented college students — have revealed a great divide on what to do about these children when they reach college age. Recall how Gov. Perry’s immigrant tuition policies, allowing undocumented Texas college students to pay in-state tuition, ran afoul of his opponents in the GOP primary. Herman Cain, in contrast, foolishly advocated for an electrified fence. And Senator Marco Rubio has made several proposals, some of which are semi-DREAM Act, or the DREAM Act in a slumber, which would not give a pathway to eventual permanent residency. Why bother to earn symbolic points but do nothing substantive?

State laws do not wisely address the issues — they violate federal law and overreact. They have also shown the interconnectedness and globalization of migrant and farm labor in a way no other means could have. Only federal comprehensive immigration reform can work — we cannot have 50 state immigration policies, any more than we can have 50 foreign policies or forms of currency. The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard the challenge to the Arizona nativist statute, so restrictionist challenges to federal power are still in play. President Obama’s initiatives using prosecutorial discretion to allow DREAM Act-eligible students to remain in the country have been distressingly small, and very few have received work authorization, leading to a situation almost worse than before. These successful students are now trying to enter their professions, including teaching and law, but cannot do so until the adults enact comprehensive immigration reform. We will all be better off when such legislation is debated and enacted into law.

In the end, Plyler is an example of our better angels. Re-reading the case today draws attention to the important issues of incorporation of outsiders into our communities, the strains in the U.S. polity, and the unrelenting meanness of the restrictionists who are still fighting this battle more than 30 years later. Most educators are drawn to the story’s narrative arc: innocent children brought to a new country where their families live in the shadows. In our society, then as now, we do not punish our children for the transgressions of their parents. The decision was the best our country has to offer: compassion, a fierce belief in reducing inequality, and political and personal courage. We now need a robust DREAM Act to allow us to keep the benefits of these precious children in our community.

[Part of this article originally appeared as “Immigrant DREAMs Deferred” on April 27, 2012.]

University of Houston law professor Michael A. Olivas has published No Undocumented Child Left Behind: Plyler v. Doe and the Education of Undocumented Schoolchildrenrecently released by New York University Press.

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Update (06/18/2012): President Obama on Friday announced a new immigration policy that will allow some undocumented students to avoid deportation and may be able to receive the authorization to work in the United States.

Some experts, however, stressed that college students without documentation have won only the right to stay in the country and to apply for work authorization, with no guarantee of the latter. Olivas told Inside Higher Ed that the president’s action was “both too much and too little.” For right-wingers, he said, the president has gone too far and so they will work to reverse Obama. For those like himself who favor the DREAM Act, the action “doesn’t go far enough.”

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