For those we deny the American Dream:  A lesson about discrimination

“They’re going to deport my mom,” she said.   If you’ve ever taught a class with recent and first-generation immigrants, you’ve heard this–heard about the people living in the shadows.

Once I had a kid who couldn’t go home to visit his mom.  She was still in their country.  She died of cancer his senior year.  He, too, was living in the shadows.

“Is your mom having a hearing?” I asked the girl.  I have an immigration attorney or two up my sleeve.

“No, but nobody’s been going out and everyone says they’re doing a sweep.”  The rumors again…A simple rumor can stop the world–work, shopping, fun–everything.  That’s power.

There was a sweep a few years ago.  Someone discovered undocumented workers in the State House and a bunch of people got arrested.   The fallout was huge.  People wouldn’t come out of their houses for weeks, as if that stops the long arm of the law once the saber rattling begins and the torches get lit.

Something similar happened all along the East Coast a few years back–New Jersey farmers reported a large spoilage in berry crops because migrant workers were afraid to come to work.  Berry season’s short, so the crop went to waste, unpicked in the fields.  Then, consumers had the gaul to complain about increased prices.

There isn’t a year that goes by that I don’t have a student figure out he or she is undocumented when it’s time to get licenses or put social security numbers on college aid applications.

They realize they’ve been straight A students for nothing.

“You will now be excluded from the American Dream.”

Xenophobia is nothing new.  Discrimination against foreigners and immigrants has been going on since the dawn of time.

“THANK YOU FOR SPEAKING ENGLISH,” Declan said to a little girl at the store.  We were buying candy.  She was trying to scam extra from her dad, and he was trying to scam more from me.  The girl spoke to Declan in two languages.  I didn’t like what Declan said and I liked his tone even less.

“No!” I said.

The dad said, “It’s okay.”

No, it’s not.  This needs to be taught from day one.  I stopped and addressed the matter firmly, on the spot.  Tolerance. Love. Universal languages like candy.  We all learn each other’s words.  We do not exclude, and we are never, ever rude.

“You can say, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand you.  Try to learn new words and make a friend like you did in Florida.”  Declan made a friend named Pedro who spoke Portuguese.  I did my best to translate.

After we left the store I reminded Declan twice more, so he knows this issue’s big and not negotiable.  Now, when he hears others being intolerant, he’ll know.  Maybe he’ll even stand up and say something.  He’s already started parroting the news.  I need to undo that right away.

There is no official language in the United States.

Now’s not the time to enact one just because we want to exclude a few million people who speak Arabic, Spanish, or Chinese.

I’ve watched people say to others, “You’re in America, speak English.” I’ve see kids sad because they don’t speak their family’s language.  Their own parents raised them saying, “Speak English,” thinking they were doing something good, giving the kids a better shot.  Now these kids say they wish they were bilingual so they could understand their grandparents.

It’s not quite cultural genocide, but it feels very close. We’re attacking family, heritage and the sacred bond of the generations that makes up the fabric of America.

My friend went to visit his sick grandmother, “For some reason, I can fully understand her.  Anyone else, no.”  He got lucky–it takes just one generation to lose a language, and those bonds vanish forever.

Our nativist thinking is cheating my students out of jobs, closeness with their families, and college opportunities.  It’s bringing a dialogue of separation, not inclusiveness, to the table.  In some cases I serve families where some kids are DREAMers and others were born in the US, full citizens. Half the family can get jobs and go to college.  The rest, a couple years older, stand by and watch.  It rips the family in two.

Why am I complaining?  Casting people aside nothing new in the United States.

In Colonial times, we didn’t like Catholics, Jews, or the wrong type of Protestant.  My state–Rhode Island–was founded on the ability to practice religion freely.  Elsewhere, you’d be branded a witch or heretic–run out of town or burned.

After we got over witches, we didn’t like immigrants.  First the Irish, Canadians, Polish, Russians, Eastern European Jews, Germans Italians, and on the West Coast, Asians of any origin.

“No Irish Need Apply.” “They’re taking our jobs, ruining the world as we know it.”  Not all Irish were created equal, prior generations of Irish snubbed the Famine Irish.  There were no welcoming arms for refugees coming for minimum-wage factory work because their families had starved to death in a preventable famine.

Next, we saw waves of hispanics–Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorians,  you name it, there were equal opportunity put downs for them, too.

Now, God help you if you say “Allah.” But inshallah, it will get better…

There is no new rhetoric under the sun. It’s all based in fear and we’ve been listening to it for a few hundred years.

Time for a better message–one of acceptance, tolerance, and teamwork–in America and throughout the world.

It’s Super Tuesday.  A lot of people are making an important political decision, effectively deciding which candidates will face off in November.

It’s time to make the right call.

I teach the election using the movie Highlander, “There can be only one.”  Highlander is about immortals who run around cutting off each other’s heads.  When they do, they get the other immortal’s power.

This is exactly like election politics.  Cut off a candidate’s head in the debate, he drops out, he endorses you, you get his followers.

There can be only one.

After today, there’ll be two.

It’s your job to pick the right two, then really hear what they have to say about the future of our nation.  Like John Oliver said, America’s future is not reality TV.

Dig deep in your heart and look at the issues, decide who will do the hard work that needs to be done.

Not only in the big election–hold Congress responsible for doing its job, too.  Jesus Christ could be president these days and not get a law through the legislature because the people we elected are too busy arguing to make appointments, pass laws, or even show up for work to vote on stuff.

I wonder what would happen if I didn’t show up to work today and had lunch in a fancy restaurant instead?

I will, in fact, go to work, though.  I want to look at my students and make them realize that America is great–because of them.

I’m sorry for America’s straight-A kids who can’t go to college because they never knew they were undocumented.  I’m sorry for the kids who are afraid for their moms.  I’m sorry for the ones who experience prejudice.

But I’m proud when they stand tall.

Today, I hope America stands tall and digs deep in their hearts as they vote.

That is our great privilege, and our greater responsibility.

It’s not about how many times we can invoke the name of Ronald Reagan in our debate-watching drinking games, it’s about truly making America great by getting rid of discrimination once and for all.

I’ll never forget the great Reagan speech, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”

And Mr. Gorbachev did.

Even the great Ronald Reagan, savior of the universe and President of the Screen Actors Guild, never built a wall.

He tore them down.

Let’s see if we can do the same.



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