Judy Waters: DACA's fate a test of our ideals

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FITCHBURG — Democracy depends on strong literacy, leading to informed citizen participation. Education is at the base of opportunity in the United States, resulting in better economic and health outcomes, improved quality of life, voter turnout.

In 1931, the term American Dream entered the national vernacular. Though the American Dream as first envisioned presented new challenges, historically immigrants who came to Massachusetts and the Berkshires were able to benefit from a growing public school system, access to a high school diploma, a job, career, and dependable lifestyle.

In 1894, a Pittsfield High School student wrote in "The Student's Pen" school journal that survived into the 20th century: "The question of immigration has been prominently before the American people a national commission should be appointed by Congress or the most serious consequences will undoubtedly ensue."

Though published well over a hundred years ago, the words could easily have been written today. Pittsfield, by the 1890s, had begun to strengthen its schools. Despite an economic downturn, the 1890s saw historically high numbers of immigrants to the U.S., and the Berkshires became increasingly diverse; Pittsfield established evening schools and "Americanization" classes (History of Pittsfield, Boltwood).

In 1894, The Immigration Restriction League (IRL) was started by three Harvard graduates who advocated for a literacy test for admission to the United States, promoting their agenda through letters to newspaper editors. Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts supported the IRL and Congress passed the senator's literacy bill in 1896. President Cleveland vetoed it, stating "it would be better to admit a hundred thousand immigrants unable to read or write, who seek among us only a home and opportunity to work." (ocp.hul.harvard.edu)

Decades before the IRL, Irish immigrants were targeted, later Southern and Eastern Europeans. Anti-immigrant views of the 1800's expressed fear of jobs being taken away and of assimilating groups who suffered barriers such as low literacy, poor health, or poverty. Efforts to keep certain ethnic groups out of the U.S. took hold well into the 20th century.

Backlash repeated

Fast forward to 2017 and the cycles of anti-immigrant views repeat. In August, a white supremacist rally brought violence to Charlottesville, Va. The president announced the phasing out of DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, inciting an immediate backlash from educators. The revoking of DACA would raise serious questions about who we are as a nation, what kind of society we uphold, and how we treat our most vulnerable. [Late this week, the president and Democratic congressional leadership announced they would file a legislative compromise to preserve DACA.]

DACA took effect in 2012 under President Obama to protect undocumented immigrants brought here as children. As a result of a parent's decision, the children, often called Dreamers, have grown up in the U.S., their home. Immersed in American life, studying and making friends while having family members who may be undocumented, Dreamers, as children, often mature beyond their years. DACA requires them to be in school or working, though many still worry about deportation.

Depending on country of origin and culture, DACA recipients, upon arrival in, may have gaps in schooling, but often quickly become fluent in English. Helping with communication, some may accompany parents to adult education programs, to clinics, or to parent-teacher meetings for younger siblings. DACA students can take on a key supportive role in the family; family strength means more stable immigrant communities.

Reflecting American ideals of opportunity, DACA students' individual goals focus on training and college. In a recent survey, 54 percent of DACA recipients said they moved to a job that better matches their career goals (Center for American Progress). They may be the first in their families to have a high school diploma, a career, economic independence.

To rescind DACA would be to undermine our collective values of family, community, compassion, and education. Allowing DACA students to be separated from families or deported to countries they don't know, disrupting careers and education, is heartless.

The quote "A nation's greatness is determined by how it treats its weakest members" is attributed to Mahatma Ghandi. Comprehensive U.S. immigration reform is crucial to addressing the problem of millions of undocumented in the country.

Even with our nation deeply divided, education still changes lives. Immigrants of the past who faced opposition took advantage of public education and eventually thrived. Locally, for many, Pittsfield's public schools and Berkshire Community College supported that educational opportunity.

We are a nation of immigrants. What happens with DACA will likely prove to be a test of American ideals, in defining and reaffirming our values, and in what it means to be an American.

Judy Waters has taught English to Speakers of Other Languages in Boston, Chelsea, and Berkshire County, in programs funded by Massachusetts' Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.


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