Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” These words, from Emma Lazarus’ famous poem, “The New Colossus,” were written in 1883 and engraved on a plaque that was placed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. To this day, her poem influences the way we think about freedom and exile, about our nation and about the people in it. We are indeed a nation of immigrants, increasingly and problematically so.
As a teacher of World Geography in Texas, I generally have a cross-section of races and ethnicities in my classroom. About a third of my students are typically white-Anglo, a third are African American, and a third are Hispanic — mostly first- and second-generation immigrants from Mexico. Many of this last third of students have poor English skills, while a few have none, speaking and reading no English whatsoever. Providing for their special needs in education is increasingly a challenge for school districts in Texas. But, we do the best we can. Generally, I pair a bi-lingual student of the same ethnicity with students who can neither understand a word I say nor read a word from our textbook. They act as interpreters.
Quite surprisingly to me, most of my students are tolerant and respectful of one another’s cultural inheritance. And that’s a good thing.
One of my young Hispanic men last year was something of a militant. He was very active and involved in organizing other students to boycott classes and join in on the public demon- strations that were held in our area against immigration reform. But he was an engaging young man too, contributing an intelligent, informed perspective to our classroom discussions on matters that he cared deeply about. He was also the class clown. Every class has one.
One day, when we were talking about Manifest Destiny – how the United States grew to span the entire continent “from sea to shining sea,” this young man raised his hand. “Mr. Garry,” he asked, “Do you know that Texas was once part of Mexico, and that the United States took it from us?”
“Actually,” I said, “history books, even those written and printed in Mexico, acknowledge that ‘Tejas’ was lost, not to the United States, but to ‘The Republic of Texas’ following the Battle of San Jacinto in 1836. Mexico’s president at that time, Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna, signed it over to the people of Texas as part of the terms of surrender offered to him. Texas became an independent republic, even though the people wanted to be part of the United States. Texas did not join the union until 1845 because of the slave issue.”
“Yeah,” he said, “well… we’re taking it back.”
At this, the classroom burst into laughter. I too had to smile because, even though what this student said wasn’t terribly funny, he spoke a very obvious truth, one that hasn’t occurred to most American citizens, and we seem powerless to do anything about it. Our nation is indeed rapidly becoming part of Mexico. Remember all the Mexican flags carried during the first couple of demon- stration marches. It wasn’t until demonstration organizers started telling people to leave their flags at home that we started seeing American flags carried, ostensibly to suggest immigrants’ allegiance to this country.
On another occasion, we were studying Mexico. One of the key concepts for students to understand in this lesson was the process of urbanization, the growth of cities. With the economy of Mexico rapidly shifting away from agriculture to mining, manufacturing, and services, the people of Mexico are migrating en-mass from rural areas to the urban areas. In fact, according to our textbook, most Mexicans today live in the largest city in the world (in terms of population), Mexico City. Reviewing my students on what they should have learned from their viewing of an education video and reading, I asked the class, “Where do most Mexicans live, students?”
Without bothering to raise his hand, my class clown blurted out, “Los Angeles!”
Some Americans are very angry about the problems that so many illegal immigrants are causing, I’ve heard that there are as many as 15 million, but does anybody really know? Crime rates are up, insurance rates are up, healthcare costs are up, and more and more young Hispanics are dropping out of school to swell the ranks of citizens who can’t find decent jobs. Some, like many of my students, feel like the immigration issue is “much ado about nothing,” that illegals are actually good for the economy, so we should leave them alone. Most, I suspect, are like me, in a quandary. But I agree with our President on this one, we do very badly need meaningful, comprehensive, and enforceable immigration reform. And it’s the responsibility of Congress to act on this great need. This is much more important, in my mind, than debating issues like the constitutional amendment on marriage or flag-burning. These issues just pander to special-interest constituents for reelection purposes, and tabling the debate on immigration until after the November election just proves how spineless and self-centered our lawmakers in Washington are.
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