The dissent correctly acknowledges that the alternative to educating undocumented students is hardly ideal. These kids do often struggle academically—49 percent drop out of high school—and may be poor and subject to less parental oversight, perhaps making them more susceptible than the average teenager to slipping into the kind of illicit activities likely to result in arrest and imprisonment. Existing immigration trends demonstrate that reversing Plyler v. Doe wouldn’t halt the arrival of undocumented children; it would just mean more adolescents standing around idly, with limited skills, little opportunity to improve their situations, and scarce employment opportunities—ripe conditions anywhere for increased gang activity and crime. Imprisonment is costlier than education, and mass deportation is prohibitively expensive and laborious. A story last month in The Atlantic cited a recent American Action Forum study reporting that deporting all 11.2 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. (at least 1 million of them children) would take close to 20 years and cost the country at least $400 billion total, reducing economic growth by 5.7 percent in the process. With last summer’s predictions of a 70,000 surge in undocumented children crossing the border, the figures are bound to rise, and with them, the temperature of ongoing debates.
Conversations should focus on what these kids bring to American classrooms. While they are not in school to serve someone else’s needs, undocumented students often have first-hand or at least second-hand experiences with state-sanctioned persecution, civil wars, and life under leadership unaccountable to taxed constituents. These are inescapable themes in U.S. History and World Civilization classes. Consider a conversation about civil war in a social studies course in which undocumented students sit alongside middle- and high-income white kids. In one of my class discussions, a conversant spoke of her grandfather, who fought in the recent 10-decade-plus domestic conflict that ravaged El Salvador and included the massacre of tens of thousands of indigenous people. Or, hypothetically, imagine how a recently arrived child from Guerrero, Mexico, might offer a valuable perspective on government corruption. This level of insight is the promise on which integrated public schools can deliver.
Classrooms can be forums for the honest, uncomfortable, revealing conversations adults don’t make enough time for in their public lives. Every student has important insights to share. But undocumented immigrants tend to be more recent arrivals, and when they’re encouraged, may be less likely to toe the party line in classroom discussions that, with their presence and participation, often become more relevant and engaging.
Think about literature class—mine, for instance. Many of the books I have taught touch on themes accessible to a new arrival. Odysseus is homeward bound, not moving to a new country. Still, belabored by twists and turns, eager to reunite with loved ones, and willing to take risks and suffer indignities, he and his archetypal voyage may resonate with students who remember their own journeys and reunions. In The Stranger, the white, French-born Meursault is definitely more of an expat than an immigrant, but in Algiers he’s isolated, enveloped in a society that does not recognize him. Even more than most teenagers, undocumented students may identify with him—and similarly wrestle with the world’s perceived indifference and absurdity. When reading Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, they readily grasp the internalized inferiority of the Tres Marías peasants in the face of the aristocratic, mannered French visitor Count Jean de Satigny.