Sometimes It Pays to Say Something: Speaking One's Immigration Mind

By John Rhodes on December 2, 2013

One day last fall, a thoughtful seventh grader came home from school (in Northern Virginia) with questions about a civics presentation given to the entire seventh grade class. Keep in mind that civics is the study of the theoretical and practical aspects of citizenship, and includes the study of civil law and civil code. Civics thus considers, among other things, the process of lawful entry into the country. The seventh-grade civics teacher had invited a long-standing custodial staff member from the school (for the fifth year in a row) to share the story of her journey from Southeast Asia to the United States, and her subsequent naturalization and integration into American society; a touching, educational exercise it was – or so it seemed.

What was not clear were some of the details of the early part of this woman's journey. This curious seventh grader pointed out to her father the curious complexity of the presenter's circuitous journey: sketchy details that left even this seventh grader wondering if perhaps the woman had entered the country illegally.

The student's questions piqued the curiosity of her father, who, as a matter of academic integrity, took it upon himself to contact the teacher, asking for more precise details about the employee/presenter's entry into the country, i.e. her then-immigration status, as part of the larger picture of her migratory journey. Indeed, why had important details about exactly how this person had arrived in the United States – a key part of an immigrant's journey from the perspective of a civics class – been omitted? The teacher did not know how to respond, and thus punted to the principal. The principal herself did not how to respond, and thus punted to the superintendent of the city school system. The lack of thoroughness suggests a lack of importance given to the legality of the immigrant journey. The superintendent eventually telephoned the inquisitive parent, declaring that the employee had entered the United States under a United Nations program as a refugee.

The happy ending to this story occurs one year later, in the same classroom. The presentation on civics is now being framed to reflect the concerns of the inquisitive parent (echoing those of many other parents) who intelligently pestered the school for the sake of academic integrity. The larger picture will now be painted, giving importance to the legality of the immigrant journey. A recent communiqué sent to the parents reads:

Students have been learning about the process of becoming a U.S. citizen, duties & responsibilities and character traits of citizens...The first guest speaker of this year is Mrs. C********, a custodian at our school...After moving to the U.S. as a refugee, Mrs. C******** applied to become a U.S. citizen through the naturalization process. She will be describing the process to the class.

Sometimes it pays to say something. Sometimes it pays to speak one's immigration mind.