'I Could Be Illegal'

May 3, 2010

DENVER -- At a hastily called news conference here Saturday afternoon, the president-elect of the American Educational Research Association was sporting an unusual name tag over her official badge. It said "I Could Be Illegal." Another scholar at the press conference wore a name tag that said "Being Brown Isn't a Crime."

The briefing was called to announce that the AERA's Council had voted not to hold any further meetings in Arizona. The new immigration law in that state is "so broad in its reach and enforcement powers that it can have an adverse impact on the freedom to travel or assemble without encroachment," the boycott resolution says.

Research on immigrant students -- both those with full legal status in the United States and those lacking it -- was well-represented on the agenda of the AERA's annual meeting, even before the recent turmoil over the Arizona law. But in the quickly-distributed name badges or buttons, the numerous references to Arizona, and a general sense of urgency about the issue, the new law clearly changed the mood here.

If anyone at the meeting was a fan of the law, he or she couldn't be located, in part because of the numerous reasons cited by researchers here to be angry at Arizona. These scholars feel that their research on immigration has been ignored, that doing research in Arizona or elsewhere on immigrant children may now be more difficult, and (for some) that they could personally be at unacceptable risk if they were to travel to Arizona.

Kris Gutiérrez, president-elect of the association and a professor of education at the University of Colorado at Boulder, noted that she is a native of Arizona and that if she returned, and happened to be stopped by authorities without her license handy, she could be identified as someone to be treated as if she had no legal right to be in the country. "This is my personal statement," she said.

The AERA boycott resolution doesn't reference immigration policy in general, just the impact of the new law on researchers -- a distinction Gutiérrez said was important because of the association's nonprofit status. (The Arizona law has many controversial provisions, including permitting the police to question those who somehow appear to be in the country illegally, a provision widely criticized as a measure that will encourage ethnic profiling of Latinos -- whatever their immigration status.)

“This materially affects our research," Gutiérrez said. "We are interested in studying our communities, many of whom are immigrant. We are interested in looking at the learning going on.... Doing this work requires the trust and respect of these communities. Researchers are also held suspect in these communities. You layer onto it the fear of being profiled and deported" and many children will be scared to talk to researchers and many parents won't want their children studied.

Scholars stressed that the research problems weren't just facing those who specialize in immigrant education issues. It would be impossible to conduct research on education in many urban (and plenty of suburban or rural) areas without considering immigrants, with or without legal documents, they said.

Many speakers here said that much of the legislative push to crack down on immigration is based on false assumptions and that it ignores their research. They talked about studies showing that immigration crackdowns don't send anyone back across the border, but can chase people away from schools. They talked about how those in school -- even from families where the parents don't speak English -- are in fact learning English, counter to what one might hear from some immigration critics. And they talked about research about the importance of parental involvement in students' educations -- involvement that may disappear if more parents are afraid of authorities.

While many researchers here complained about how difficult it is to be heard in the debate on immigration issues, some resolved to do more. Patricia Gándara, professor of education and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California at Los Angeles, said that Arizona is turning into "the new apartheid South" and that researchers need to document what is happening. She said that her research center is planning a series of projects to do just that.

The Impact on College Students

Most of the immigration scholarship presented here focused on elementary and secondary school students. But a number of scholars are also looking at college students. The research on higher education generally stresses the problems faced by students trying to earn a college degree and policies that could help them. Patricia A. Pérez, assistant professor of Chicana/o studies at California State University at Fullerton, is presenting research on the way undocumented students pay for college and view affordability issues.

Several of the papers here attempt to personalize the issue -- and to challenge the stereotypes about these students. These profiles of individual students are particularly important, scholars say, because the legal situation in Arizona, and fears elsewhere, make it hard for students to speak in public about their situations. Tracy Buenavista of California State University at Northridge and Angela Chuan-Ru Chen are presenting a paper about an undocumented Asian-American college student, attempting to show that these issues affect more than one ethnic group.

Ryan Evely Gildersleeve, assistant professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Iowa State University, is presenting his work on life stories of undocumented students. In an interview, he said that he hoped these stories would challenge the consciences of policy makers and also inject some common sense into the discussion.

He will describe here the story of a student who graduated from a community college in Los Angeles and is now at UCLA, and the family sacrifices that are involved to assure her success. "She's really not just going to college for her family, but with her family," Gildersleeve said. Her family members had to bring in extra income to allow her to quit a job to have time for college, and they had to assign child care duties she'd been performing to others. These examples, he said, show just how much the students and their families want an education.

Another student he has profiled is graduating this year with a degree in computer science and a minor in mathematics. "The state of California needs hundreds more like this young man, who is bilingual and biliterate, and yet he's scared to leave his home county," Gildersleeve said.

His situation shows that, even if policies are changed to make it easier for these students to enroll in college, more reform is needed, Gildersleeve said. Otherwise these students will graduate and then be unable to make the best use of their educations. The stories are needed, he said, so undocumented students are not faceless.

"By focusing on lives, I want to show that when we talk about policy, it's not devoid of human beings," he said.

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