While it’s long been the case that the majority of immigrant kids in our city do not live with both parents, it is increasingly prevalent to find such kids living without any parents around at all; teenagers are foisted off on distant relatives, friends, or acquaintances: it seems some Mexican and Central American parents have taken to immigration to solve their parenting deficiencies. They pay enormous amounts to have their child smuggled north, while staying home themselves, smug in the knowledge that they’ve done the very best thing they could do for the kid. After all who can argue against the good will of a parent who makes this kind of financial and emotional sacrifice? Aren’t North American salaries much higher, and unemployment much lower? Is it not the case that even illegal aliens are entitled to free public schooling in El Norte, even college?
Americans presume that illegal immigration is always grounded in an attempt to meet enormous material challenges. But what if it turns out that parents pay coyotes to be rid of troublesome children in a guilt free fashion? And there are many such troubled children, of course; poverty, the lack of a social net, and the explosion of violence in Central America and Northern Mexico have seen to that. These immigrant flows are the blowback from exportation not just of our own drug and gang cultures, but of globalization; free enterprise has undercut traditional family values in unprecedented ways. Outsourcing has added vitality to a maquilera economy that sunders families; aping the license of American media culture, local television, film, and music producers promote transgressive excitements which entail the abandonment of Christian morals; divorce is rampant, while even in intact households, permissiveness undermines traditional methods of child nurture—the inability to discipline children effectively, a marker of western social progress almost everywhere, is epidemic. Kids are sucked up into gang life, drug abuse and violence, and parents having lost control over them, turn in desperation to the traditional outlet of relief, immigration. Guatemala, Mexico, and El Salvador are in the throes of a societal breakdown. How much of the blame should we take upon ourselves for the destruction of these societies? Shall we, by absorbing these “feral” children through belated guilt, allow our own systems to collapse? Do the rights of undocumented children include a right to parents? Shouldn’t neglect be part of the equation here? Offering these children de facto sanctuary in our schools may not be in their interests. By accepting the ambitions of their parents on face value, we may be dooming the very kids we hope to save to a cycle of crime, imprisonment, illiteracy, and brutal poverty. Students are being essentially abandoned: by parents, who are glad to be rid of them, by a system of jurisprudence which is not equipped to make distinctions, by cops so overwhelmed en masse by gang culture that they gladly lash out at those so clueless as to become easy targets, and by teachers, who are asked to take responsibility for a child that has lived without adult supervision or care for most of his life, and asked to do so at the peril of destroying any semblance of class management. If their parents abroad don’t care, if they scoff at their parental obligations as they scoff at immigration laws, why does it become the State’s responsibility to raise their offspring? Which moral duty has precedence…the duty to provide children with decent, orderly schools, or the duty to take in an unwanted brood whose feral impulses have reaped havoc on school discipline?
So, given these facts, I suppose it had to happen one day. As a high school teacher of English as a Second Language, I’ve grown quite accustomed to finding students in my “advanced” classes who’ve been in American classrooms since second and third grade, but this is a first: this week Miguel enrolled in my ESL1a class, the very beginning level. This seventeen year old was born in the United States and has attended school every year here, apart from some time off in jail. A pleasant fellow whose smile lights up the class, Miguel rings the changes of English vulgarity with great proficiency, but cannot write a sentence, in either Spanish or English. Many such children find themselves trapped in a feral abyss between two underfed idioms. But how? Bilingual illiteracy takes some doing. Should we blame Miguel, who in seventeen years hasn’t found English important enough to master, it appearing a paltry thing to be able to read, for instance, the terms of his probation? No. He, like so many of his immigrant peers, has never known real schooling. Periods of no schooling were interrupted by graceless passages through dysfunctional schools, where, over the klangefarbe of Spanish chit-chat, it was impossible to hear English modelled. For Miguel school has been a restless moil, the futility of which was broken only by the brisk business of selling drugs at lunch.
It cannot be supposed that his Salvadoran parents could ever have offered a reliable memory of what it means to get educated, a functional educational routine. They more than likely dropped out in grade school, or never attended at all. For generation after generation, the process of intellectual accumulation has not merely been stifled, but forcibly excised from the culture; now on both sides of La Frontera, what it means to be a student has been largely forgotten.
The kind of people we are does not, then, really depend on us, but on the communities that sustain us. Lacking this constraint, students become a kind of void that attracts blind contingency. The kind of people we see in our classroom—are bedeviled or enchanted by—likewise is contingent, the result of circumstantial luck or chaos, and our intuition about this, that they are to be held morally accountable neither for the failings of history, nor for intentions good or ill, nor for the missteps of time, seems naturally convincing and generous, but it too is a luxury we can no longer afford. Quantitative change becomes, alas, qualitative. Nothing can be more demoralizing than to see how this plays out, in my classroom as Miguel stumbles into class thirty minutes late, in a cloud of marijuana, his eyes pinpoints of inexpressible delight.