Tuesday, September 05, 2017


DACA as a Teachable Moment

In my faculty days, I used to teach both American Government and Debate.  If I were teaching now, I could see DACA as a really great teachable moment, if it were framed carefully.

In teaching Debate, I’d encourage teams to come up with the strongest arguments they could for the other side while they were developing their own.  It tended to improve the caliber of the exchanges, and it forced some level of intellectual honesty.  In that spirit, I’ve been trying over the last few days to come up with the most reasonable, defensible arguments for the anti-DACA side that I could, just to see what might happen.  They may not be the most widely held reasons, but they’re the most defensible.  I’m just trying to wrap my head around that point of view.  

It’s difficult, because at a really basic level, it violates common sense.  For example, in my own case, my family moved from Maine to New York before my second birthday.  I don’t recall having been consulted about it; I was probably more focused on trying to walk from one end of a room to the other without falling down.  At that age, I had no more concept of citizenship than I did of logarithms.  If you substitute “Mexico” for “Maine,” the anti-DACA position holds that the erstwhile toddler should be held criminally responsible.  That’s a tough position to defend.

Much of the opposition seems based in either explicit or implicit racism.  That’s certainly what gives it political staying power.  I’m not going to give a “pro” argument for racism.  If that makes me biased, so be it.  

There’s an argument around rewarding bad behavior that strikes me as somewhat more serious.  This argument abstracts from the particulars of the case at hand and refers instead to a more general principle that people who break the law shouldn’t be rewarded for it, even if the illegal act itself was unintentional.  In this argument, giving erstwhile toddlers citizenship effectively rewards the parents for breaking the law.  

It’s the kind of argument that makes sense only in the abstract.  Many current American citizens can trace their ancestry to immigrants who came here unauthorized.  (Or, in the case of slavery, against their will.  I’m not entirely comfortable with the term “immigrants” in that case, either.)  But we don’t hold descendants liable for that.  I had an ancestor who went AWOL from the Swedish army to come here under an assumed name.  Should I be extradited to Sweden to face trial as a deserter?  I’ve never been to Sweden, and don’t speak a word of Swedish.  If not, what’s the cutoff date, and why?  Is the crime of the DACA cohort any different, or is it just a matter of a cultural statute of limitations?

Alternately, if my brother knocked over a liquor store, should I go to jail for it?  In that case, we wouldn’t even have the sands of time as an excuse.  

Honestly, most of us have some sketchiness in our history.  Part of the American idea is the fresh start, or the second chance.  That’s also part of the community college idea.  Research universities were invented in Germany, but community colleges were invented here.  They fit a narrative of second chances and inclusion that represents the most admirable part of the American story.  That’s why I’ve been heartened to see statements against the repeal of DACA from the Association of Community College Trustees, and the presidents of the Massachusetts community colleges.  They know an existential threat when they see one.

Other than racism, which I remain convinced is at the heart of the anti-DACA movement, the best explanation I can come up with is a sense that if something is illegal, it will go away.  

But I’m having trouble with that.  I just finished “Everybody Lies,” by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz and Tim Andres Pabon, which is about what we can learn about some major social issues by applying analytics to big data.  In the section about abortion, the authors note that in states with heavy restrictions on abortion, there’s a large and unexplained gap between pregnancies and recorded births.  That gap doesn’t exist in states with easier abortion access.  They also note that Google searches for terms like “DIY abortion” are much greater in states with restrictive access.  

In other words, it’s one thing to ban a behavior, and quite another to make it go away.  

Community colleges exist to serve entire communities, including those who arrived as children.  I’d much rather those kids grow up to be well educated, well-employed, taxpaying citizens than become an easily exploited class of desperate people without a country.  That’s as true of kids from Mexico as it is of kids from Maine.  Because wishing the admittedly thorny issues away by fiat, through a law, won’t make the people go away.  It will only make their lives dramatically harder.  As a partisan of the “inclusive” side of the American story -- far from its only side, but to me, the most admirable -- that’s unacceptable.

So my appeal to the debate judges boils down to this: Dreamers are not abstractions.  They’re here, working and studying, contributing to America, just like everybody else.  Holding them responsible for their parents’ choices is no more reasonable than holding me responsible for the move from Maine.  

And as someone who works in a community college, I’d like to get back to doing what we do best.  Classes start Thursday.  All are welcome.

Thanks for this post. I agree wholeheartedly with the central point. That said, there's one point on which I'd like to push back. That's when you write that "Part of the American idea is the fresh start, or the second chance."

I was really struck when I read the NY Times article on Abraham Davis's vandalism of a mosque in Fort Smith, Arkansas, by the fact that the Muslim community whose place of worship he vandalized was willing to give him a second chance, but the criminal justice system wasn't: that is, the judge insisted that any plea bargain would involve a felony. And in most of the USA, a felony record makes it damn hard to get a second chance.

And then the penny dropped: Davis's felony conviction will make it a lot harder for him to get a second chance. But statistically speaking, African-Americans are more likely to be convicted of a felony than whites, and less likely to be excused for it. While I agree that the American ideal is the second chance, I'm pretty cynical about the claim that the ideal corresponds to any widely observable reality.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/08/26/us/fort-smith-arkansas-mosque-vandalism-and-forgiveness.html?_r=0
I think you too easily dismiss rewarding bad behavior. I agree that looking back at those who have already been brought here, it's hard not to have compassion on those who have been brought here as children. But it's an argument about the future, not about the past. And it's not about punishing descendent or relatives. It's a question of how do you make sure that you don't have an unintentional side door open that says that anyone who wants their kids to live in the US are free to bring them here. I see this as the counter-argument you need to address.
The flaw in your Swedish ancestor argument is that you didn't enter the US with that deserter. You were born into citizenship. (The racists want to close that loophole also, framing it as "anchor babies".) These kids were not born here. But it is also true that many of them entered the US legally. They became undocumented when their parent's visa expired.

Not relevant here, but I like your argument that flagship universities and private colleges are an Elitist German invention while Community Colleges and Land Grant Universities are an egalitarian, populist American idea. Shouldn't the latter get the support of conservatives?

The argument I would advance against DACA is that it encourages illegal immigration. Although it isn't actual amnesty, it is not that different from the amnesty Reagan signed that did encourage illegal immigration. Even when you say it is "one time only", history says it won't be. My response to that argument would point out that doing other things at the same time (mostly employment related) would balance it out.
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