Yesterday, I encountered a former student, an earnest young woman who wants to be a nurse. Hardworking and resilient, her ambition almost breaks my heart. Her mother cleans hotel rooms for a living, for a boss who takes advantage of the fact that she is without the papers the rest of us take for granted – the social security number, the proof of insurance, the library card, and so forth. This future nurse who goes to church every Sunday, who volunteers in her community, who never misses a day of school, lives quietly, in the shadows, afraid of being deported to a country she left as an infant, in the arms of her mother.
And then there’s the student who called me last week, out of the blue, to ask if I knew any rich people, if I knew anyone who would sponsor him to continue his college education. A bright student, he tells me he’s spending his summer doing ‘Mexican jobs’ and that the scholarships have all been exhausted. I don’t know what to tell him. No longer the innocent little toddler who took his first steps on American soil, he is now a man, considered illegal, an alien, and worse. While his American born peers have graduated from high school and landed trendy jobs at the Mac store or the local Starbucks, he has depended on the kindness of strangers to get by, working for cash under the table and being transported by friends with easily acquired driver’s licenses and social security numbers. What stings most for me, as an immigrant and as a principal, are the college credits accumulated, at no cost, by his American friends, those who were able, by virtue of their birthplace, to take full advantage of the early college high school program I founded in 2003.
I continue to be dismayed and disheartened by this. Federal law guarantees a free and appropriate education (FAPE) to all K-12 students, regardless of status. In Arizona, with its plethora of charter schools, ‘free and appropriate’ can run the gamut. Mission driven, a charter school does not have to be all things to all people My school, with its early college focus, differs from from a school sponsored by the NFL, let’s say, and that’s a good thing. Families should be able to choose a school that fits their needs. But here’s the rub. Proposition 300, a referendum overwhelmingly approved by the voters of Arizona in November of 2006, provides that college or university students who are not United States citizens or permanent residents, or who do not have lawful immigration status, are ineligible for in-state tuition status or financial aid that is funded or subsidized by state monies. Students like my future nurse or my modern-day Pip, desperately seeking a Magwitch-like benefactor. This means that successful early college high schools are forced to discriminate against minors, denying undocumented children the right to the ‘free and appropriate education’ funded by their very attendance!
I’m no lawyer, but surely Prop 300 flies in the face of FAPE? Then again, who could file a complaint? Not my students. To do so, they would have to step out of the shadows and most certainly into removal proceedings.
The DREAM Act must pass. It makes sense. But we must also do something about those students who have yet to graduate from high school. How do we keep them safe?
Last year, I appeared on Horizonte a couple of times to talk about this very dilemma. A student, Noemi, accompanied me to the station and sat, in silhouette, to tell her story. What keeps her going? Easy. The knowledge that one day, when she is a pediatrician, she will take care of the grandchild of someone who voted for Prop 300.
In case you missed it …
I admit it. I’m a snob when it comes to what is and isn’t literature. The stack of books I take to the beach isn’t, while the collection of aging hard-backs in my bookcase undeniably is, its spines bearing the names of Wordsworth, Keats, Trevor, Yeats, Joyce et al – for all intents and purposes, the literary canon. So it was with some cynicism that I read an article in the Harvard Education Letter this morning.
I read, with sadness, some of the comments about Al Sharpton who flew across county to this Arizona that has yet to address the crisis of immigration policy. One in particular, a 53 year old Brandy Baron, called him a ‘a loser who needs to mind his own business.’ This brought to mind the hate-mail I received following an August 2007 column in the Arizona Republic. Absolutely at a loss about what to do when I realized that Proposition 300 prevented me from using my state funds to pay for the early college component of the high school program where I was Principal, I picked up the phone and contacted a sympathetic Ed Montini who agreed to write an article. Naive about the level of xenophobia that exists in this state, I was wholly unprepared for the comments that poured into the blogosphere. Pages and pages of hatred. Like Rev. Sharpton, I was told to mind my own business, to go back where I came from, and much worse. Several months later, I gave a speech at the MLK “Living the Dream” Breakfast; but unlike Al Sharpton, I’m no big gun when it comes to civil rights issues, I can’t organize freedom rides, but I am an immigrant who loves the idea of America, and the fact that my daughter can pursue it without fear. But it is a travesty and a tragedy that her friends who were carried across the border as infants, by well-meaning parents, are denied this dream.
And so I have made a decision. I’ll carry my green card, and I will renew it when the time comes. I will pay my taxes. But, I will not vote because I cannot vote until I become a citizen. And I cannot, in good conscience, become a citizen until the process is available for those undocumented dreamers who have sat in my classrooms, whose parents have tended the lawns of my neighborhood.
I’m glad Al Sharpton came to Phoenix. We need more voices like his. We need Oprah and Bono. After all, as Linda Valdez pointed out in today’s AZ Republic, the Mexicans are the Irish of yesterday. Oh, and on that, I recall Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy at a New York event, holding up T-shirts bearing the imperative, ‘Legalize the Irish!’ Let’s bring that same event to Phoenix. What are the chances of Hillary or Ted donning shirts emblazoned with “Legalize the Mexians?” Slim.
I dug out the speech I gave at the 2008 MLK ‘Living the Dream’ breakfast. 18 months later, I feel much the same way, but there are signs that the silence may finally be breaking.
“Not too long ago, I asked our daughter, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Without missing a beat, she said, “Happy.” She’s off to a great start – born in America to a citizen and a legal resident, she has health insurance, a little savings account, a passport. She has a City of Phoenix library card. In several years, she’ll have a driver’s license; soon after that, she’ll be able to vote. She has a Social Security number so she’ll be able to work. She is documented. Sadly, there are other daughters and sons in this state who also want to be happy when they grow up but through no fault of their own, they lack the documentation that would make their pursuit of happiness more than just a dream. They are the children of immigrants who have become the collateral damage in this war over immigration – and make no mistake, it is a war. When hearts harden, dreams diminish and possibilities narrow for these kids. Unlike my daughter, who can join me today to openly celebrate the legacy of Dr. King, these students have no choice other than to live in the shadows, afraid of being forced to leave the country they have always called home.
Anna Quindlen says that immigration is never about today; it is always about tomorrow ‐ the kind of tomorrow that Dr. King talked about when he described his dream of an America with a place at needy child. The kind of tomorrow I dreamed about as a little girl in Northern Ireland where one day Catholics and Protestants would attend the same schools. Basically, immigration is an exercise in hope, in deferred gratification, and deferred dreams. Dr. King reminded us, “disappointment is finite, but hope must remain infinite.” The immigrant children among us have little other than hope, but recently they have had to face adversity and disappointment that no child should have to face: disappointed that Proposition 300 limited their access to a college education, disappointed that the DREAM Act died in the Senate, disappointed that there are those who are willing to discard them while, at the same time, import professionals from other countries to do the very jobs these talented students are qualified to do!
I marvel at the resilience of these young men and women, many of whom have taken their first steps on Arizona soil, placed their hands on their hearts every day to pledge allegiance to the flag of the only country they’ve ever known, and with dedication and gratitude have risen to the educational and social challenges they have faced. This prestigious award belongs to these undocumented dreamers and to their undaunted immigrant spirit. It also belongs to their tireless, courageous champions some of whom are here today … brave Manuel, Carmen, Marcos, Amanda, Ed, Maria, to Genie and Hector Zavaleta who are not here today, but have devoted the past fifty years to protecting civil rights.
In closing, I thank the Arizona Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee for this beautiful morning, and from the bottom of my heart I thank the Phoenix Human Relations Commission and the city of Phoenix Equal Opportunity Department for their courage in presenting this award which hope is the first step in breaking the silence about these children, these future lawyers, engineers, teachers, doctors. They are here. They are here. We need to listen to their dreams and we need to act to make those dreams a reality.”
Six months into this new chapter, and the summer-time nervousness is kicking in. I should know better, having worked in ‘charter land’ since 1995. It’s June, and we have 140 freshman students on our estimated count list. Unlike traditional public schools, so much of what is done in charter land requires projections, best guesses of how many kids will actually show up on opening day – huge leaps of faith from time to time.
Not wanting to be ‘the parent from hell,’ and trying not to wear my principal’s hat, I had broached, with her teacher, the possibility of a Current Events lesson or two. Well, there was just so much to cover in the new Social Studies adoption that we wouldn’t be able to get to current events until January. This, of course, would be after the most significant current event in the country’s history, the inauguration of an African American President.
When Greg, my trusty side-kick, (erstwhile Student Success Liaison) go out to recruit students, we always find ourselves having to come up with disheartening responses to the barrage of questions about music and the arts. “Will there be band?” “What about art?” “Will you offer chorus?”
Truly, the best part of my job is talking to kids and their parents. Talking about their dreams, their goals, why they want to come to my school, a fledgling college prep charter school in Phoenix.