Friday, September 30, 2011

A lesson not quite learned

Montgomery, Ala.—It is sadly ironic that the same day a federal judge upholds major sections of the Alabama immigration law—the most restrictive in the nation—the state also receives an ‘A’ on its educational work in teaching civil rights history.

It’s ironic because this comes at a time when the most retrogressive forces in Alabama claim a victory, although it is unclear to me against whom.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Blackburn did block some provisions of HB 56, including, as the Montgomery Advertiser reports, “one that makes it a crime to willfully harbor or conceal aliens and another that makes it a crime for undocumented aliens to work in the state.” HB 56 goes now into effect and makes it legal, among other things, to detain somebody if there is “reasonable suspicion” that that person is in the country without proper documentation. It also requires schools to collect information on the immigration status of students.

Called by Gov. Robert Bentley "the strongest immigration law in our country," this piece of legislation has officially become Alabama’s badge of honor.

But the governor has something else to be proud of these days: the just released Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching the Movement: The State of Civil Rights Education 2011 reports that Alabama receives excellent grading when it comes to the instruction of civil rights history. Specifically, according to the Alabama Course of Study (2004) for social studies cited in the SPLC study, seventh graders studying civics are required to “describe examples of conflict, cooperation, and interdependence of groups, societies, and nations, using past and current events.” (30) This suggested activity, we read in the report, is intended to trace “the political and social impact of the modern civil rights movement from 1954 to the present, including Alabama’s role” (30).

So at age 13, students of the state should be able to make connections with other histories and movements, past and present, associated with the universal struggle for civil rights.

The lesson of the civil rights movement, or so I thought and learned during my schooling in Italy, was one of tolerance and solidarity. To me, it was about bringing about our humanity. Our best side. African Americans were the protagonists of that struggle, but its lessons could be extended to other fights for social justice in the United States as well as elsewhere. It was a message that resonated in South Africa were a few, enlightened individuals coalesced around the charismatic leader Nelson Mandela (in prison from 1963 until 1990) and built a movement that eventually led to the end of the apartheid; but it was a message also taken up by César Chávez in this country in the struggle to improve farm workers’ conditions. In the last few years of his suddenly interrupted existence, Martin Luther King Jr. himself expanded his message of racial justice to include the fight against social inequality and poverty in America.

So I thought, foolish me, that the most powerful, enduring message of the civil rights movement had to do with bringing our humanity into policymaking: fighting to eradicate poverty, not rewarding the wealthiest for ‘creating jobs’ or the financial gurus of the world ‘to save our economy from collapsing’.

America 2011: nearly one in six lives in poverty, according to the most recent US Census. And the Pew Hispanic Center reports that there are over six million Hispanic children living in poverty. The current economic recession seems to have hit the Latino community the hardest: their kids are now the largest group of children living below the poverty line in the US.

We can argue until the end of times what we mean by federal authority over immigration matters and the extent to which states should act upon the Immigration and Nationality Act. And it seems that, after all, the Supreme Court will have a final word on the constitutionality of anti-immigration state laws. All parties agree that the nation is in dire need of a comprehensive immigration reform; in the last few years, the federal government has been actually working through the Department of Homeland Security to combat illegal immigration at the local and state level. For instance, several states have by now implemented 287 (g) programs that authorize the federal government to enter into agreements with state authorities and allow local police to cross-designate officers to enforce immigration law. A similar agreement, launched in October 2008, is Secure Communities, which detects non citizens that are in custody of the law enforcement. Not only are their fingerprints run through federal criminal databases, but now they are also checked against DHS immigration databases. Immigration and Custom Enforcement can now deport a non citizen as a result of this operation. As of June 2011, Secure Communities was active in 1,400 jurisdictions, as the National Immigration Forum reports.

Both programs are intended to identify aliens who have committed crimes in this country. However, as a result, these initiatives, as well as the Arizona law and its copycats (including HB 56), have ended up criminalizing all immigrants who lack proper documentation. The immediate result of that is, for the fiscally conservatives, diverting resources: ICE shifted its target from actual criminals and terrorism suspects to “ordinary status violators” with the result of criminalizing the latter while reducing the pressure on drug and human smugglers. In Alabama, law enforcement has already complained about the implications of HB 56 for counties already in distress due to the devastation brought by the tornadoes in April.

In a state where the undocumented population is on the rise, yet it is still quite small—the Hispanic Pew Center estimates it to be around 2.5 percent (and 4.2 percent of the labor force)—I wonder whether policymaking efforts should be elsewhere directed. As the Anniston Star suggests, should the fact that more than a million adult Alabamians are functionally illiterate (25% of the state population) receive more attention from Alabama legislators?

What we shouldn’t argue about any longer, in light of the legacy of the civil rights movement, is whether legislators should pursue more humane policies.

In a state where communities are highly gentrified and social separation is palpable, it is easy to pontificate about the respect of the law when the law seems not to be about you, your family and your next-door neighbor.

“This law was never designed to hurt fellow human beings,” Bentley declared after the ruling. “As a physician, I would never ask a sick person if she was legal or illegal. But as governor of this state, it is my sworn duty to uphold this state's laws, and that is what I intend to do."

Apparently Bentley adjusts his ethical values depending on whether he complies with the Hippocrates Oath or the Alabama law. Fact is, this governor failed to set high expectations when it comes to bringing tolerance and solidarity into policymaking on day one. It was Martin Luther King’s Day and I was at the Dexter Church when Bentley, after he had just been sworn in, declared from the pulpit that he was ‘colorblind’ and only ‘brother’ to Christians.

Fifty-eight percent of the 11.2 millions of undocumented immigrants present in the US, as estimated by the Pew Hispanic Center, are Mexican.

Now “getting in line” is not really an option for immigrants coming from high immigration countries like Mexico. Moreover, only 5,000 green cards are available annually for less-skilled workers.

An option, however, is to jump on a train, then cross the Sonoran desert, risk your life and the ones of the children with you and hope that one day you won’t have to regret putting your own children through such a hazardous adventure.

An option is to believe that in America their children will have a better life, as they know that back home they wouldn’t.

As a teacher, I well know that giving a student a grade depends on how the rest of the class is doing. One student's grade is thus relative to the performances of the other classmates. In this regard, the results of the SPLC study are troublesome at best. According to the report, the majority of the states ‘fail’ when it comes to teaching about the civil rights movement. And the study states that a “GRADE A means Alabama includes at least 60% of the recommended content and sets higher expectations for its students than other states.” (30) But if Alabama, which just passed the most extreme anti-immigration bill in the country, gets an ‘A’ in civil rights education, then what exactly have we as a society learned about civil rights?

Perhaps we need to wait for a more enlightened generation of Alabamians to see a change in how we understand and act upon the lessons of the civil rights movement.