Teachers Are Not Immigration Officers

Schools in the United States are increasingly tasked with activities that are outside their normal purview, of providing education to students, and a safe place to learn, and an environment where people can explore a variety of topics. The compulsory nature of education makes it appealing to use schools as locations for enforcement; for vaccination, for example, where the most effective way to make sure as much of the population as possible is vaccinated is to require vaccinations for schoolchildren, to force the school itself to enforce this policy, to dedicate resources to checking on the vaccination status for attendees, to deal with the snarled red tape that surrounds vaccine refusers.

Schools are also the place where other interventions occur; where teachers attempt to spot children who are hungry, or abused, and get help for them, for example. Teachers are mandated reporters on topics directly concerning personal safety, which I would argue is as it should be. School is the place outside the home where people go and expect safety, and sometimes safety requires getting children out of unsafe environments, making sure that children have enough to eat, quietly slipping a child a pair of new winter shoes after noticing a pair of tattering sandals in the dead of winter.

This general social agreement, that schools can be a place to enforce some things, is being extended to more and more things, and those things are…not appropriate. Not in keeping with the function of a school, with the purpose of education, with the role of teachers in the lives of their students. This was brought home in Alabama, where a draconian new immigration law included a clause requiring schools to monitor and report the immigration status of their students.

Undocumented immigrants are persecuted in the United States. Tightening regulations, many of which are highly abusive in nature, make it extremely dangerous to navigate the world. You cannot, for example, get a driver’s license, it’s hard to get car insurance, it’s difficult to comply with the law, to participate fully in society, because you are constantly looking over your shoulder. Because the DMV employee may well report you, which may lead to deportation. Your family could be split apart by an action as simple as attempting to obey the rules of the road.

And now, apparently, an action as simple as going to school. Teachers, and schools, are not immigration authorities. Their job is not to police children, but to educate and protect them. Being undocumented is not an immediate threat to your personal safety—or it wouldn’t be, if you didn’t live in a racist country preoccupied with driving you out, excluding you, at any cost, including the passage of legislation that makes you unsafe and encourages people to attack you with impunity. A child who is undocumented, or is a citizen but has undocumented parents, is not in danger. This child is not about to starve, is not lacking in the basic needs required for survival, is not in danger of being beaten or abused by family members, simply because of immigration status.

Requiring teachers to report on immigration status sets a dangerous precedent. It is one thing to ask that educators be alert to signs of children in danger, to intervene to protect their charges. It is another entirely to demand that teachers do the work of law enforcement and report on non-threatening, non-critical issues. Furthermore, what is basically being asked here is that teachers exclude children from school by reporting them, or threatening them with the fear of being reported. Effectively driving children out of school endangers them; teachers are, in essence, being asked to directly harm their students or face penalties for not complying with the law. Teachers who choose to object may be punished, could find themselves unemployed.

Pushing children out of school deprives them of opportunities. It also forces them into a position of needing something to do with themselves. That might be work; child labour in the fields, and elsewhere, is not unknown in the United States. That might be crime; children with nothing to do, no hope, no opportunities, might find it appealing to join people who offer opportunities. That might be drug use, or any number of other things to cope with a world where you are constantly reminded that you are not wanted, do not belong, and should go away.

We should not be turning our teachers into an immigration task force. They have far more important things to do, and on rapidly shrinking budgets. School districts are experiencing funding slashes so deep that communities are raising funds to keep basic programs alive, to make sure that students have enough supplies to get through the year. And the government wants schools to waste resources on determining if children are living legally in the country, to push them out if they are not, to punish them for something that may not even be their fault.

Immigration has become the scapegoat, the symbol, something larger than itself, in discussions about policy in the United States. There’s a firm belief that ‘fixing the immigration problem’ will magically resolve scores of social issues. People seem to think that running people out of the United States will fix the economy, bring us all back to an even keel, bring back the golden days when everything was all right and everyone was happy. These same people are ignorant of the huge economic contributions provided by immigrant labourers, the tremendous loss to our country created through racist hate legislation targeted very specifically at particular groups of immigrants.

Telling teachers to police their students is part and parcel of a drum beat that keeps growing, and growing, and growing. Who will still the hands of the drummer?