Dreaming of Justice: Undocumented Students and Punitive Immigration Policy

Undocumented students across the country are torn between achieving their dreams of an education, and knowing full well that once they complete their college degree they may not have many options to pursue their careers. This is because the political rhetoric surrounding immigration is punitive and it is time for it to stop. The costs to us all are too great.

One cost is to children raised in the U.S. but brought here illegally by their parents. Rather than giving them the opportunity to attend university by allowing them to pay in-state tuition and passing the Dream Act, so that upon completion of their degrees they can become contributing members of society, we currently leave them in a state of limbo. Those that do make it to university live in constant fear for their futures once they complete their degrees, but even while they attend college they are not able to fully participate in the college experience because they cannot participate in work-study programs on campus or participate in the many study abroad programs. Our current attitude towards immigrants, especially towards Latinos must change. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education argues that undocumented students who pay in-state tuition at universities not only attend university at higher rates, but they have lower dropout rates, and bring financial benefits to the states who allow in-state tuition as well.

However, there are three fundamental challenges in changing this punitive focus on immigration policy:

First, a because of the white racial frame Latinos encounter discrimination, whether immigrant or citizen, even among Latino professionals. We must become aware and challenge the white racial frame. Feagin demonstrates that the current rhetoric of America as a post-racial society is wrong. He states, “this new colorblind rhetoric has just papered over what are still blatantly racist views of Americans of color that have continued in most whites’ framing of this society” (p. 97). This important awareness of racism in America is the first challenge that must be overcome before immigration policy can turn away from its punitive direction.

Secondly, until we can see immigrants as human beings who come here because of crippling poverty, poverty that is so great and unimaginable to most Americans that they resort to doing unthinkable acts just to be here. I recently heard a story of a mother and father who got caught trying to cross into the U.S. illegally and left their four year old daughter with a hotel front desk worker until they could safely get her. Imagine the conditions in Mexico to make parents risk this kind of behavior with their most precious children. A recent report from La Opinion reports that immigrants are also increasingly willing to cut the ends of their fingers off for thousands of dollars in order to not be fingerprinted.

Finally, until we see immigrants as a contribution rather than a cost to America the punitive focus of the immigration debate will not change. There are too many studies which demonstrate that the millions of illegal immigrants who are working in the US are actually providing great services and wealth for small businesses and large corporations. They are contributing not costing America. This economic debate should have been over a long time ago.

Until immigration political rhetoric and policy change from its current punitive position, not only will be continue a racist immigration agenda, endure many humanitarian costs from leaving one’s children vulnerable to cutting ones fingers off to avoid detection, but we will continue on a path bad economic policy as well.

Most sadly, there are too many victims of punitive and misguided immigration policy. And this will not change until we all fight against the white racial frame for immigrants allowing them to express some dignity and humanity while they try to provide for their families in the face of our racialized society today.