DACA Fight Symbolizes Fear that American Life Has Become a Mere Zero-Sum Competition

Why is the DACA crisis a topic for a blog on public education?

This is the impasse in Congress, exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s flip flops—saying he’ll sign any compromise Congress presents to him to protect so-called Dreamers from deportation—then rejecting any compromise that fails to include a number of other priorities of his own including the border wall and outright bans on other kinds of legal immigration long accepted as enriching our communities.

Young people who call themselves Dreamers were brought to the United States as young children without documentation. They have been raised in our neighborhoods and promised an education through 12th grade in our public schools.  In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Dreamers’ right to a K-12 public education under the protection of the 14th Amendment in a decision known as Plyler v. Doe.  Many of these young people came to the United States as babies and toddlers; they may neither remember their parents’ native country nor speak its language.  These young people include high school valedictorians, honor students, musicians, athletes, artists and lots of school teachers.  Until 2012, when President Barack Obama established the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—DACA—our society forced them to live in the shadows.

Access to higher education has been a major obstacle to these young people. It used to be hoped that the federal government would protect their right to in-state college tuition and access to Pell Grants and federally backed student loans. Lacking these protections, the 2012 DACA at least protected their right to avoid deportation and qualify for a two-year renewable work permit.  Last September, President Trump rescinded DACA protection, saying he would begin to phase out the program after six months—on March 5, 2018. Last month, however, on January 9, a federal court in San Francisco issued an injunction to reinstate the DACA program and at least stop the clock on its pending phase out.

Since last September, when he announced the phase out of DACA, the President has called on Congress to come up with a long term solution, claimed to “love” the DACA kids, promised to sign a compromise, and then bluntly refused to consider any of the plans on which Congress has shown signs of compromising. A danger is that any kind of solution is now lost in a tangle of Congressional chaos, dysfunction, and other pressing issues on the Congressional agenda.

I believe that the debate about DACA is an appropriate subject for this public education blog because it is about our society’s responsibility to the Dreamers who live among us, study in our public schools, and work among us.  According to Greg Sargent of the Washington Post, there may be 1.8 million of these Dreamers who wait in limbo as the President refuses to work with Congress to enact a compromise that would protect them.  While, according to Sargent, 81 percent of Americans favor protection for Dreamers, an extremist minority including key advisors to the President and many in the House Freedom Caucus hold tight to an ethos of individualistic competition and believe personal success is a zero sum game.  Somehow opponents of DACA believe recipients of DACA protection will be successful, and their success will limit the chances of native-born American young people.

Certainly the fathers of our system of public schools understood society and education very differently. Schools create educated citizens, they believed, and it is society’s responsibility to serve all children in order not only to enrich children’s personal lives, but also to benefit society as a whole.  Here is John Dewey from The School and Society, published in 1898: “What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all of its children… Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.”

Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, explored the ideals that over time have been broadly accepted about the role of public schools in the United States.  In An Aristocracy of Everyone, Barber confronts those who believe that life is a competition of winners and losers— where another’s success might result in one’s own or one’s child’s failure: “This book…. assumes that every human being, given half a chance, is capable of the self-government that is his or her natural right, and thus capable of acquiring the judgment, foresight, and knowledge that self-government demands. Not everyone can master string physics or string quartets, but everyone can master the conduct of his or her own life. Everyone can become a free and self-governing adult… Education need not begin with equally adept students, because education is itself the equalizer. Equality is achieved not by handicapping the swiftest, but by assuring the less advantaged a comparable opportunity.  ‘Comparable’ here does not mean identical… Schooling is what allows math washouts to appreciate the contributions of math whizzes—and may one day help persuade them to allocate tax revenues for basic scientific research… The fundamental assumption of democratic life is not that we are all automatically capable of living both freely and responsibly, but that we are all potentially susceptible to education for freedom and responsibility. Democracy is less the enabler of education than education is the enabler of democracy.” (An Aristocracy of Everyone, pp. 13-14)

Barber would have appreciated Erica Green’s NY Times profile of Karen Reyes, an Austin, Texas preschool teacher who specializes in education for deaf children.  Ms. Reyes is a Dreamer: “Ms. Reyes was brought to the United States from Monterrey, Mexico, by her mother at age 2. When she thinks of home, she thinks of the only one she can remember, in San Antonio… where she and her grandmother would pick pecans from a tree in the front yard. Her childhood was ‘all-American,’ she said, recalling late afternoons at marching band practice, at the Y.M.C.A. or selling Girl Scout cookies…. (H)er mother was strict.  When she was 14, she found out why.  Her friends wanted to take a shopping trip to South Padre Island, then Laredo, on the Texas border with Mexico, but her mother forbade her from going because if she came upon an immigration checkpoint, she would not have the paperwork to pass.  ‘It changes the trajectory of your life,’ Ms. Reyes said.  The barriers of being undocumented became more apparent after that—especially in applying to college. But with teachers’ help, she secured private scholarships for a graduate school program for special education teachers who wanted to teach the hearing-impaired. She received her master’s degree from the University of Texas at San Antonio….”

Reyes is among at least 9,000 school teachers now contributing to our society, paying taxes, waiting for some resolution of the DACA crisis, and hoping for confirmation they will have a future here in the United States, the only country they know.