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This article, written by AACTE Dean of Residence Leslie T. Fenwick, originally appeared in the Washington Post Valerie Strauss column and is reprinted with permission.
“The Problem We All Live With” is the title of the famed Norman Rockwell painting inspired by the story of Ruby Bridges and school integration. In 1964, Rockwell created the painting for the 10th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education legal decision that declared state laws establishing separate public schools for black and white students were unconstitutional. The subject of Rockwell’s painting was inspired by Ruby Bridges, who was just 6 years old (born four months after the May 1954 Brown decision) when she integrated the all-white William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans.
The rabid violence hurled at young Ruby (mainly that day by white women on the scene) is represented in Rockwell’s painting by a racial slur, the letters KKK and a splattered tomato — all appearing on the wall behind Ruby as she marches forward. Despite this terrorism, innocent Ruby walks close on the heels of the front two guards into an undeterrable future. The painting is triumphant. Ruby’s right to attend an American public school unshackled by segregation was ensured by the federal government and, that day, warranted the protection of U.S. federal marshals.
The civil rights movement ushered in the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, which equalized the playing field and gave people from all over the world an opportunity to immigrate to the United States. With the world watching the advent of new freedoms for blacks, America was pushed to remove the old immigration quota systems that favored western Europeans over all others. In many ways, the civil rights movement and the 1965 immigration laws made a new America.
If “The Problem We All Live With” is an iconic image of the Civil Rights movement, what image will historians use to frame 21st century American immigration? Will it be the photograph of Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his toddler daughter, Valeria, clinging to one another dead, face-down in reeds and washed up on the Rio Grande’s muddied shores after a 1,000-mile trek to find safety and economic opportunity in America?
Or will it be drawings by migrant children depicting the horror of being placed in cages by U.S. border officials—drawings that the American Academy of Pediatrics says prove the detained children are traumatized by caging and isolation from parents and loved ones.
According to the Pew Research Trust, almost half (45 percent) of Americans say that immigration has made American better. But do Americans really understand immigration and its associated issues beyond the fictional lore of a melting pot nation? Here is a True-False pop quiz to test your knowledge.
True or False?
Most of the families and children detained at the U.S. southern border are illegal immigrants.
False. Those at the border are asylum seekers. Crossing an international border for asylum is not illegal. The overwhelming majority of families and children detained at the U.S. southern border are asylum seekers fleeing extreme danger—murder, kidnapping, rape, sex trafficking and forced recruitment by gangs. These families and children are not illegal immigrants, illegal aliens or undocumented workers.
Parents from Mexico and Central America are wrong to bring their children to the U.S. southern border.
False. Parents have decided that chronic violence, food insecurity, and severe economic hardship are more life-threatening to them and their children than attempting to gain asylum in the United States. Critics say the conditions many are fleeing resulted from U.S. interventions during the Cold War that especially destabilized Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras with violent government coups, vicious rebel forces, and lopsided trade and agricultural agreements that wiped out local economies and farming options. According to the International Rescue Committee (IRC), the region suffers from violence like the world’s deadliest war zones giving asylum seekers legitimate reason to flee their home countries.
Immigrant children stall U.S. education attainment statistics.
False. Education levels of U.S. immigrants are on the rise. A 2018 National Bureau of Economic Research Report indicates that most immigrant groups either arrive with high levels of education, or their U.S.-born children quickly meet or exceed the schooling level of the typical American. By the second generation, the children of immigrants have more education than a typical American. In fact, though Mexican and Central American immigrant families come to the United States with the lowest levels of formal education when compared to all other groups of American immigrants, their children achieve the largest education gains up three to four years from the equivalent of a ninth grade education to high school graduation and some college. The most recent reports indicate that 30 percent of immigrants ages 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 31.6 percent of those who are born in the United States. Interestingly, 40 percent of sub-Saharan African immigrants enter the United States with a bachelor’s degree and their children achieve bachelor’s and master’s degrees at rates twice that of other U.S. citizens.
Most U.S. public school students categorized as English Language Learners (who have limited English language proficiency) are immigrants.
False. According to U.S. Census data, 78 percent of ELL students are U.S.-born citizens.
The children of undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country by their parents when they were young (often referred to as ‘dreamers’) are more likely than American citizens to be criminals, unemployed and a drain on the tax base that supports social services.
False. Dreamers are the children of undocumented immigrants and came to the United States when they were young children. The Center for American Progress reports that dreamer households annually generate $15.5 billion in federal taxes and $8.5 billion in state and local taxes, and that collectively they hold $66.4 billion in spending power. Numerous national polls indicate American’s support for a path to citizenship for dreamers. A series of four CNN polls found that respondents support policies to keep dreamers in America as follows: Democrats by a 94-4 percent margin, Independents by 83-14 percent, and Republicans by 67-21 percent.The nation’s first refugees were newly freed blacks. After the Civil War, these refugees’ feats, risks, and hardships made way for full emancipation. As they moved from enslavement to freedom, they were subjected to imprisonment for (purportedly) violating state vagrancy laws — the invention used by slaveholding whites and others antagonistic to black freedom, citizenship and economic self-determination. And just like today’s Rio Grande, the rivers of Virginia, North Carolina and Louisiana figured prominently in enslaved and freed blacks’ escape narratives and plans.The emancipatory act (so unique to refugees worldwide) of placing kin before nation is captured in an old North Carolina ballad, “He’s Gone Away”—the most poignant version I believe is sung by renowned soprano Kathleen Battle. The folk song ends with the words “look away over yonder.”It is that word “yonder” that helps me understand Ramirez and his river trek. It is what makes Ramirez an American though he’ll never walk this country.
Yonder is the place where we put all our hopes and longings. Yonder is the place where those separated are reunited and hearts meet. Yonder is the place after moving that allows staying. Yonder is the rest that finding family and a place provides.
Leslie T. Fenwick is the dean of the college of education at Howard University.