Recently, the conversation around the use of the word “illegal immigrant” came to a precipice when the New York Times’ public editor said there was nothing wrong with using the phrase. Writers like Jose Antonio Vargas and institutions like Univision chimed in, and rightly so. “Illegal immigrant” suggests that the immigrant themselves is illegal. The very term suggests that these men, women, and children who migrate live an existence of illegality, whereas “undocumented worker,” the better alternative, suggests that the person crossing the border actually works here but has not (yet) filled out all the forms to become a full American citizen. The former puts the burden of proof on the individual, whereas the latter highlights a systemic issue.
We still have discussions about students in this situations in black and white terms. Either they all leave or they can all stay … with a caveat. Or a few. For instance, they can’t be gang bangers and drug dealers. And they can stay if they spend thousands of dollars trying to get through college. Or enlist in an army to protect a country that won’t necessarily protect them. Many of them (or their parents) still pay taxes under different social security numbers and work in some of the spaces many others won’t, but with little nuance in our discussions, we don’t get to hear about their actual lives.
More importantly, we as teachers can’t actually tell how our students got onto our rosters … until it’s too late. By too late, I mean, we end up liking them.
Educators who work in high-English Language Learner (ELL), high-poverty environments get that we as educators have to develop a relationship with them before getting to the academics. You should do so for all classrooms, but the expectation for us to build a comfort level with our kids makes a big difference. We get to know their quirks, their pains, their scents, and their styes. We find the timbre in their voices, their sauntering and hopping through the hallways, the funny way they write their q’s, the first topic they discuss when they don’t get the task, and how loud they pop their pieces of gum.
Soon after, we get to know their deficiencies in acquiring the language, the ways they use their prior knowledge to construct the new, the funny way they mix English and words in their native language. And we laugh because it might actually make more sense if every word we wrote in one language actually meant exactly the same thing in English. If we know their native tongue, we switch up our voices to a “I know I’m not supposed to do this” whisper, but when prompted again to speak in that tongue, you decline in a “I already told you I wasn’t supposed to” sorta way. Then, we insist on speaking to their parents in whichever language they prefer in a “I told your child I wouldn’t do this anymore, but you’re cool” sorta way.
We hope the best for them. We want them to think of positive aspirations and fulfill them. We tend to them. We know their names for a year. Two or three if we’re lucky. We see them grow. We clap for them a little harder in ceremonies, because they’re ours.
We can’t tell by any of this whether the students have that allow for their “right” to be here. We can only hope that this country gives them the opportunity to let them follow their dreams, wherever they may lead.