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.