Immigration Talk

A rare few times each year I tell my students we're having class in English. These are reserved for things like discussing the syllabus, learning about language acquisition, or the topic I explored with students this last week: Immigration.


We had just finished a week-long unit of the movie La Misma Luna. Students now all shared an emotional connection to several immigrants, most of them undocumented. I don't think it matters that they are fictional characters.

I always preface with the disclaimer that I will not judge opinions nor hold them against anyone if they were to disagree with my own. I ask and remind them to be civil, and open to listening to their classmates.

I quickly tell them why we are going to discuss this topic in English -- because I've found it to be cumbersome and confusing to have such a discussion in Spanish in the lower levels. I also explain why I choose to devote an entire day to this discussion -- because more understanding of the topic will allow us to better navigate interpersonal situations with, and on behalf of, Spanish-speakers in our area and around the world.

I start by having them raise their hands if they have heard an immigrant tell a bit of their story, however brief. Then keep it raised if that person was a Spanish speaker. I ask if anyone wants to share, but move on quickly if nobody is eager to. Usually a couple students do.

Then I share with them a few of the stories I've learned. I tell them about Kike, the 30 year old man who ran a cafe out of the house where I rented a room back in 2005. Kike and I became good friends, and he told me about his attempts to gain a visa to travel and work in the U.S. The deposit, application, bank account records, bus to Lima, etc, ultimately ending in denial. This was hard on Kike and brought on great feelings of sadness and frustration. Compare this to the ease with which I traveled to and worked in his home country of Peru.

I talk a little bit about having interpreted for children, wives and dads trying to fill out paper work and track down loved ones who'd been taken by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) during the huge meat-packing plant raid in 2008. The town of Postville just happens to be 10 miles up the road, so some kids have faint memories of this all happening. I talk about the fear and the chaos felt by so many during that time.

I've got two books sitting on my desk that have lots of stories of Spanish-speaking immigrants: Shattered Dreams, edited by Virginia Gibbs (my former Spanish professor at Luther College), a smattering of heartfelt stories told by individuals affected by the Postville raid; and The Mayans Among Us, by Ann L. Sittig and Martha Florinda González, exploring the experiences of a handful of Mayan immigrants, mostly women, as they navigate a unique existence as bearers of an ancient culture in small-town Nebraska. These books at times read like action adventure novels, at other times history lessons. I want them to know there are books like this and that people read and enjoy them. I may read a brief passage aloud.

Of course this topic is perennially polemic. But consider how much more so after the election of Donald Trump. Students may know where I stand politically. But one shouldn't know where I stand when I'm moderating the ensuing discussions. If anyone starts being obnoxious or disrespectful, I will kindly cut them off and go to the next person who'd like to speak. Whoever is talking, whatever the prompt we're discussing or the question we're trying to answer, I make sure the conversations stays civil all the while asking questions that will force us to stick to facts and question assumptions.

It's important to look at the numbers. I ask for them to raise their hands when I say the correct estimate of undocumented immigrants living in the U.S... 2 million, 11 million, or 25 million. The answer is about 11 million people. But don't just assume they know how many people actually live in the U.S. (over 300 million) or that number will be meaningless.

This next segment is always a stunner. It sure was for me the first time I saw it. I ask kids to think about the rhetoric (first defining the word "rhetoric") on undocumented immigrants among politicians today. Of course the rhetoric is different depending on party affiliation (but policy not terribly so). The GOP today takes a hard stand on illegal immigration, and rhetorically casts a criminal light upon undocumented persons in the U.S. These are just facts which are hard to argue. So I ask them if they know who the Republican candidates for president were back in 1980. The answer is Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush. What do you think the rhetoric was like during this 1980 Republican Primary debate?

Moving on. Time for some humor.

"What are their thoughts on this?" It's safe to say you'll get a number of kids who will laugh "Exactly!", a few kids who might timidly smile, and some who will be obviously annoyed at such an unfair comparison to European colonization of America. Remember that we are trying to stick with facts. We should appreciate students' disagreement, but the reason I often hear for finding this particular meme unfair is "But there wasn't any society or nation back then. It's different." Sure, it is different. And perhaps different enough to call the meme unfair. But there certainly were societies and nations with leadership and laws governing millions of people. That is why I proceed to show this map of Native American Tribal Nations before European colonization. (You may be able to find something less blurry and simpler to discern, but it serves its purpose and checked out as bonafide.)

This is where I start winding down the discussion. I finish with a little game called 'Guess Which Poem Is Inscribed On A Plaque That Remains On The Statue Of Liberty Still Today'. I read two: A Soldier's Cry and The New Colossus. Another option is to read the The New Colossus (the actual poem inscribed on the plaque that remains on the Statue of Liberty today) and have kids guess on which national monument this poem can be found.

As tenants of a pulpit in a public service position, I caution us all to tread carefully on this topic at school, but to not shy away from it. The foreign language classroom is a totally appropriate place to discuss the ins and outs of immigration and the discourse that envelops it.

You may decide that it's not worth the risk of creating an atmosphere of polarity when you've been working so hard to create a community. I completely understand that. But if you do choose to breach the topic, I hope you find this script of sorts to be helpful in directing the lesson and guiding the ensuing discussions among your students.

(This was written February 2017. I've finally got around to adding links and doing some revision. If you'd like to leave comments, please be civil. Thank you.)


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