Why Should We Educate A Bunch of Immigrant Kids, Anyway?

ICE ICE BabyBy now you’ve heard or read the kerfuffle. A group calling themselves the Oklahoma Republican Platform Caucus has issued their “plan” for resolving the state’s budget woes. They claim there are 82,000 non-English speaking students in the state, and suggest we “Identify them and then turn them over to ICE to see if they truly are citizens, and do we really have to educate non-citizens?” 

It’s difficult in the current social and political climate to address questions like this seriously. The modern GOP has managed to conflate “real American values,” a “prosperity doctrine” version of Christianity, and good old-fashioned “pompous a-hole” into a guiding ideology – a sort of “Fascists For A Fearful Angry Jesus” club (F-F-FAJ, for short). 

Despite repeated protestations that such a mindset represents only a small minority of the Party, it’s apparently that small minority which controls most of the legislation, shapes most of the platform, and determines most of the public face of all things Republican. Until we come up with some sort of system in which legislators vote on stuff and the secretly swell majority has input, this is apparently the group with whom we must deal. 

Others have addressed the most obvious black holes in their reasoning – anyone who speaks a second language is probably illegal, immigration raids in elementary schools are more practical than simply paying a living wage to educators, etc. It’s especially ironic that a state which devotes so much legislative energy to symbolically defying the federal government would suddenly inviting the most oppressive optics of the beast to roam the halls of our schools. 

As outrage over this “plan” spread across social media, a number of seemingly decent people asked what, exactly, was wrong with the idea. Why should we pay to educated children who are here “illegally”? Fair question, and one which I will do my best to address without dissolving into my usual outrage or bitterness. 

I make no promises about that last part. 

1. The primary function of public education is not about benefitting the individual, but the society in which they live, work, and otherwise interact. 

I know we talk a great deal about loving kids and serving children and helping them find their unicorn rainbow donut, and that’s great. Most teachers have a heart for young people or we couldn’t tolerate their inanity as much as we do. Maybe individual teachers take up the profession to reach individuals – and that’s fine. 

But as a society, as a state, we wrote universal common education into our constitution because it’s what’s best for the economy, for social cohesion, and the general welfare of all citizens. In other words, I want you to understand basic math and science not primarily so you’ll have a fulfilling career in the aerospace industry, but so you’ll make better decisions as a voter, an employee, and as the people I have to deal with on a daily basis. It’s not so different than the reason I want the fire department to put out the fire in your house or for your kid to learn personal hygiene – my house is only two doors down, and my best interests happen to correspond with yours. 

These kids are here, for whatever reason. What, exactly, is the benefit to society of making sure they’re as ignorant as possible and have nothing to do all day but look for ways to entertain themselves while you’re at work or school?

2. We don’t generally hold children accountable for the choices of their parents. 

Conservatives seem to long for Old Testament times. For as much scripture as we hear mangled on the floors of the OK House and Senate as justification for bad law, they almost never reach past Malachi. In much of the Old Testament, immediate families and even descendants unto seven generations could be punished for the sins of some patriarch or other. Entire cultures were slaughtered at God’s command for not being part of the chosen specials He actually liked. They were very different times.  

But we live in the 21st century, and in a republic, no less. Most States don’t let 10-year olds vote, or drive, or drink, or smoke, or decide whether or not they want to have sex with grown-ups, or pose nude, or choose their own doctor, or their own meds, or decide whether to get an abortion, or even a tattoo or a piercing. In other words, they’re not legally or ethically responsible for their situation or even most of their decisions. Barring overtly criminal behavior – most of which suggests some combination of bad upbringing and mental health issues – they’re not the problem. Punishing them suggests they are. 

3. Chasing “illegal children” is not a real solution; when we get sidetracked by arguing about it, we lose sight of the actual problem. 

Oklahoma has a budget problem. Our tax policies, instituted to support specific businesses and spark trickle-down prosperity, aren’t working. We have people at the Capital whose job it is to fix that. It is one of their top few functions and obligations. And they don’t want to. 

We can continue the argument about exactly what the solutions should be, and exactly how many of these wonderful, rational, well-intentioned legislators are up there trying their bestest-hardest-superduperest. But we must continue that argument. Even rounding up and deporting everyone who has an accent or a hard-to-pronounce last name doesn’t put teachers in the classroom or gas in the tanks of state law enforcement. It doesn’t fix roads or bridges or keep grandma alive. 

It’s what they call “red meat” for constituents. We find a dirty passage in some novel on a list as proof of perversion in a reading program, or obsess over U.N. plans for environmentally sustainable agricultural practices; both are proof only Representative Righteous can prevent global conspiracy from coming to your tomato garden while your child’s English teacher turns her gay! It’s why we repeatedly push bills demanding that single pregnant women be publicly flogged while insisting the federal government has no right to regulate guns or enforce civil rights legislation. 

It keeps folks on all sides worked up about nonsense and off the primary topic – our leadership isn’t doing what they are there to do. What they promised us they’d do. What they were elected to do. What all ethical and professional decency requires them to do. 

4. Refusing to educate kids based on their legal status is unconstitutional. 

We can kick and scream all we like, but for better or worse John Marshall established “judicial review” in the early 19th century and the North won the Civil War in 1865 (you can blame Republican leadership for that, by the way). Whatever pride the Oklahoma State Legislature takes in keeping an army of lawyers busy year-round defending our defiantly unconstitutional laws unsuccessfully in federal court, the fact remains that jurisprudence on this issue is well-established and unlikely to change anytime soon. 

Plyler v. Doe (1982) struck down a Texas law denying funding for education to illegal immigrant children as well as efforts to charge illegals $1,000 a year for their kids to go to school. The short version of the Court’s reasoning:

First and foremost, it violates the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment. Students may be in the country illegally, but they are still “persons within {our} jurisdiction” and cannot be denied equal protection of the laws. That protection includes the “due process” clauses of the 4th and 5th Amendments, and these kids have not been convicted via due process of anything meriting denial of their education.

Second, it doesn’t further a “substantial goal” of the State. Depriving children of an education has not been shown to reduce illegal immigration or raise test scores, particularly since these children have little or no control over their parents’ decisions and are hardly the most challenging group we face before us each year. 

Third, kicking them out of school is bad for society. Public education “has a pivotal role in maintaining the fabric of our society and in sustaining our political and cultural heritage; the deprivation of education takes an inestimable toll on the social, economic, intellectual, and psychological well-being of the individual, and poses an obstacle to individual achievement.”

Fourth, it’s not a real solution to the supposed problem. The State could offer nothing other than speculation suggesting this would have any sort of positive impact on either their economy or their educational goals. 

For what it’s worth, the state is equally obligated to educate young people who’ve committed actual crimes. Ask any teacher how many “ankle bracelet kids” they have in their building this year. That’s the thing about school – we take them all. We try to reach them all. We believe that all of them could get better, and that any of them could be great. It’s what state leadership hates most about us – we try to love all of them, regardless of their color, religion, or commitment to making America “great” again. 

Conclusion: As this issue is argued, don’t confuse it with whatever you feel about immigration in general, or Mexicans as a stereotype, or Trump vs. Obama vs. Fallin vs. Maddow. We’re all mad about something, and some of us are mad about everything. 

Recognize it for what it is – typical right-wing fear and loathing, distraction and avoidance, dressed up as great American principles. You want a better state? A better nation? Pick better people than this and insist on better ideas.

Vanilla Ice - Ice Ice Baby


Thanks Rob for this post. I'll have spare time soon to volunteer in your campaign office if you ever run for any office!!!!


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