Crossing the Border: Education or Robbery

Lee Culpepper

5/6/2008 11:19:15 AM - Lee Culpepper

Unassisted this year by a media blitz, the May-1st-amnesty marches for illegal aliens limped along American streets. In previous years, the media hype surrounding this issue commanded the nation’s attention. When I taught in Texas, my students found the demonstrations more urgent than their novel The Great Gatsby.

During my best class, several Hispanic students asked me for my opinion about the demonstrations. They told me they had friends skipping classes to participate. I answered their question by relating it to the novel and our discussion of the American Dream.

I asked the class lightheartedly what they would think if one day my wife and I were to show up at their homes demanding -- not asking -- that they allow us to move in because their homes were more comfortable than our own. They all laughed at the idea of my wife and me coming to live with them. I empathized with why people want to come to America, but I stated that illegal immigration is a serious problem requiring logical solutions, not emotional reactions. I encouraged them to think about what would happen to me if I were to break the law in another country and then demand the country change its laws. They laughed again at my example.

I had gotten to know my students well during the year, and a surprising number had unexpectedly confided in me that either they or their parents were not in the U.S. legally. As a result, I wanted to answer this question as tactfully as possible.

I decided to ask my students what they thought of peers who blew off studying and ultimately wasted taxpayers’ money. I urged them to consider what parents and other taxpayers might think if they actually witnessed the surplus of teenagers who either disrupt classes regularly or simply collect dust in classrooms where teachers permit them to just take up space and fail. I pressed them to think about the number of students around school who fit this description. Most of the class could appreciate the problem.

When it came to illegal immigration, I admitted that my personal investment in illegal-immigrant students’ lives affected me two ways. Students who applied themselves and appreciated their opportunity to learn made my job rewarding. (They also highlighted the apathy that many American students have towards school.) But the illegal immigrants who caused trouble and accepted failure gnawed away at my compassion. When any student disrupts class by not paying attention or misbehaving, his actions negatively affect everyone else. Lessons suffer when teachers are dealing with discipline problems. And when an undisciplined or apathetic student is here illegally, he or she only compounds an already existing problem of wasting tax money and taking away time from other students who are trying to learn.

Today about $12 billion a year is spent educating school-aged illegal immigrants in grades K-12. Approximately 1.5 million students in American classrooms are in the U.S. illegally. These children have about 2 million U.S. born siblings. Sticking American taxpayers with this bill is inexcusable.

Nevertheless, I found myself torn between feeling understanding and calloused depending on the situation. On one hand I had illegal-immigrant students like Joel who took my lessons about self-discipline, responsibility, and hard work to heart. Joel went from being an unengaged student to one who valued his education. His renewed effort in class impressed me and made me proud of him. I couldn’t help but want to see him succeed right here in America. I appreciated that his father, who was a cook at a local restaurant, simply wanted a better life for his family.

On the other hand, I also had illegal-immigrant students like Ector and Enrique. I empathized with these boys, too, because their fathers were not involved in their lives. I’m certain both boys are fated to depressing futures. Nevertheless, their bad attitudes wore on me. Unlike with Joel, I failed to motivate these boys to apply themselves. They presented fewer problems in my class than others, but they still frequently distracted other students. Ector craved my attention but used his being “illegal” as his excuse not to apply himself. He wanted to feel sorry for himself no matter how hard I tried to inspire him about the future.

During our study of Gatsby, we had discussed how both illegal and self-indulgent behavior hurt innocent people. It’s a lesson Ector and Enrique couldn’t have cared less about learning. But it’s a lesson Joel will use to better his life. Joel’s hard work and great attitude set the example for other students to emulate -- regardless of nationality.

The American Dream offers hope to many, but the dream becomes tainted when individuals pursue it illegally or immorally – a theme addressed in Gatsby. Perhaps it is human nature to sympathize with fictional characters brought to life by great authors. But real and delightful people like Joel, who is in a volatile situation through no fault of his own, can tear at our hearts forever.

Despite our feelings, logic should direct our decisions, especially when illegal activity siphons $12 billion annually in education alone. Education is part of the American dream, but siphoning money is simply a crime.