I do not live in a bubble, and one of the ways I work things out is to write. So I have put this piece together as a means of expiating my own grief over the results of the recent presidential election.
At first, I wanted to keep my mourning private, especially as my current role as a college president requires me to tread carefully and not give an institutional patina to my personal thoughts. I have also not wanted to invite the various trolls who consider my views like catnip. But I have come to the view that silence will probably cause greater harm to our country's immigrant students, particularly those "DREAMers" -- the hundreds of thousands of students in the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, who were brought to this country as children and have been allowed to attend college. The 1982 Supreme Court case Plyler v. Doe allowed them to stay in school, while DACA gave them employment authorization, lawful presence and Social Security numbers. It is by no means legalization, but it has been a transformative program while Congress has fiddled over immigration reform.
Indeed, I have dedicated my entire life to many ideals, but the ones that matter the most were repudiated on election night. Since then, I have arranged over a dozen conference calls with DREAMers, immigration lawyers, college presidents and reporters. Many know I helped write the Texas statutes that give many of the DREAMers resident Texas tuition and financial aid. Inasmuch as I have taught higher education law and also immigration law for 35 years, these are my fields. I have won many more contests in this terrain than I have lost, but this one hurts, and I feel as if we all let down my students, a dereliction of duty that I feel deeply. I fear for the DACA students, many of them in my own institution, who placed their lives and hopes in higher education and the polity. I urged them to trust we would do the right thing if they took responsibility for their own lives by studying and coming forward. They have done so, but now we have not held up our part of the bargain.
In the wake of the election, a number of colleges and universities are declaring themselves "sanctuary campuses," saying they will limit their cooperation with federal immigration authorities. However, the various proposals for carving out sanctuary campuses have occasioned even more vexation for me, and this viral-fed option is what finally moved me to write this article.
These well-intentioned efforts to establish a sanctuary use the term in its root ecclesiastic meanings, such as providing safe harbor. But from whom?
"Sanctuary" is also a contronym -- an example of a single word that has opposite meanings. ("Sanction" is another.) To many folks, the term depicts a defiance of law and serves as a trope for unauthorized immigration and liberal pieties. That it has become tinged with racist and anti-Mexican sentiment renders the term even more poisonous. One person's safe harbor is another person's harboring, in the dueling metaphors, if not the actual immigration law.
My view on these proposals is that they provide a chimerical outlet for people who are frustrated and have no other pathways to ameliorate the situation. But the term "sanctuary" is a term that is too fraught with restrictionist meanings or misunderstandings about the difference between "defying the law" or choosing not to implement discretionary practices, for policy, efficacy or other reasons. Worse, it has no legal meaning and the admonitions are vague and impossible to implement, which will only frustrate people more.
I have urged all those people who have called me to be very cautious in suggesting that a legal cocoon is possible or even needed for students -- who, after all, are not lawbreakers. Of course, institutions should provide support and services, as they would for all their students, especially vulnerable ones. But exacting pledges that cannot be kept will do no one any good.
And there are longstanding rules of engagement, or, in this context, nonengagement in higher education, such as the current Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy on such enforcement. As it notes, schools and colleges are exceedingly low priorities, and forms of this policy have been in place for many years. Virtually no campus has ever been raided for students in unauthorized status or undocumented campus workers, and they are unlikely to be.
But just as I cannot tell you how to react to any rollbacks of the Affordable Care Act, I cannot tell people what could happen and what the alternatives are. I know it will not be good, if for no other reason than it has already exposed vulnerable populations -- who are not "criminal," and who actually may be lawfully present (such as DACA holders) or in legal status (such as F-1 students from Muslim countries).
And I cannot promise these students that positive results will come of all this. I have urged them to be careful in expressing themselves in ways that might give rise to thermodynamic reactions, as have begun to surface. Getting arrested and convicted of any transgressions would give real rise to possibilities of deportation. And they should be careful about using social media in a way that might expose their parents to possible harm. I will not urge them to march into the valley of death or to put themselves at risk, although I will agree that the peaceful marchas galvanized public attention in 2006. American citizens who urge this option for DREAMers should examine their consciences and not encourage these students to put themselves in harm's way. At the very least, we should do no harm.
Feel-good actions and solidarity are fine and have an important place in the civil-rights narrative. But I do not hold out hope that the sanctuary proposals will make any genuine change or provide actual sanctuary -- whatever that empty vessel means to anyone on either side of the issue. And so I prefer more meaningful actions, such as working with student groups and their supporters: advocacy groups, bar associations, social service agencies, philanthropies and the usual support infrastructures for colleges and communities. The University of Houston Law Center, where I have spent most of my professional life, has stepped up, and my colleagues and law students are providing technical assistance and advice, as have many of my immigration law professor colleagues.
I ride with my students in the university's elevators every day, and it always is a life-affirming experience, as so many are first-generation students, immigrants and students of color. When they recognize me, they relate their experiences and their triumphs and concerns. In the last two weeks, they have actually cheered me up -- not for the first time. I have dedicated my entire life to them, and they have reciprocated. One of them sensed my own dread and said to me, "Llegamos tan cerca (We came very close)."
What can we do? We still have more than 20 states in this country that provide resident tuition for the undocumented. But the students' trajectory would clearly be altered if DACA were abolished or allowed to expire. It would be a foolish and tragic policy to demonize and deport these DREAMers, even as their parents have been criminalized in the narrative. We need these students, and they surely need us now. Can't we all agree that comprehensive immigration reform is overdue 30 years since the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986? If we want to do something constructive, such advocacy has never been more necessary.
That will be a tremendous fight, under the circumstances. But these students in whom we have invested should be at the front of that line, when Congress recognizes its responsibilities. That is where we should all focus our efforts.
Many community groups work to assist immigrants; two of them are directed by formers students of mine, and two others employ former students. All are 501(c)3 organizations, and donations to them are tax deductible to the extent allowed by law.
Forty years ago, I was assigned to teach “Open Enrollment English” at the City College of the City University of New York. The course was classified as remedial, and credits were non-additive.
Walking sprightly and empty-headed into the class, I found one-third of them were off the boat from Hong Kong, one-third off the boat from San Juan, and most of the other third off boats from Palermo, Porto and Gdansk (remember: this was 1970). The first writing assignment produced three different versions of English, and I had no idea where they came from -- or how.
The Chinese guys in the back row were always heads down, thumbing through dictionaries. What I now know to be their lexical transitions were pretty good, but there wasn’t a preposition to be found in their papers. No kidding!
The girls from Gdansk showed hard silent faces, splattered their pages with diacritics, but left no trace of articles. No kidding! I half-understood the guys from San Juan jabbering in Spanglish and felt good about it, but they wrote that way, too. Most of what I learned about all this happened much later. I walked into that class as a thorough naif.
A scan of the usual panic headlines of the past decade will easily turn up “perfect storms,” “tsunamis,” and other dire weather patterns lying in the future of higher education. Some of these are covers for race/ethnicity mix change, others for the deleterious effects of app addictions, and still others for the rise of economic inequalities. I have a shelf for the publications and reports bearing such Jeremiadic news and threats. It’s labeled, “the usual,” and includes more sophisticated but even darker analyses of “separation,” “undereducation,” “stopped progress,” and “crises” strewn about like dead flower petals.
However well-intentioned, these analyses have the effect of telling large groups of higher education students and potential students that they are lacking something, or that “our future would be brighter if only we addressed something you are lacking.”
Really? One numbs at such absence of self-reflection: the writers simply don’t listen carefully to what they are saying between the words. Had they configured the population in a different way, they might have toned down the damning that seeps through their lines.
I am not offering another “usual” today. I am not a siren of ominous effects. Rather, I want to detail a different set of populations that were with us in that 1970 classroom, are with us more now (and even increasing in the future), and that require analyses and guidance in a key other than that offered by the storm literature.
We are going to use languages, not race or family income, as a template. And we’re not assuming that U.S. resident students from non-English-dominant backgrounds are de facto remedial and bound for failure. In fact, quite the reverse.
But that depends on a variety of factors, most of which the research, policy and pundit establishment in higher education has not bothered to map. We will know better what to do if we know more about the experiences and conditions through which these distinct populations cross the line between fluency in conversational English and the literacy constitutive to the reading and writing of English.
“Ways” and “extent,” in turn, depend on the language at issue, and the intensity of language conditioning, environment and maintenance. The Chinese guys at CCNY in 1970 didn’t know from diacritics; the Polish girls were loaded with prepositions. Such belated knowledge is a metaphor that opens a key door to assist advisers and faculty naifs such as I once was. If I had known better and more about my students’ language crossings, I could have done better by them.
This nation of immigrants enfolds roughly 350 languages spoken by 60.5 million people. Among those whose dominant language is other than English, we know native speakers of Spanish are the largest group (37.5 million), with recent Spanish-speaking immigrants more likely to be monolingual Spanish than those long-established in the U.S., e.g., from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and, in the Southwest, descendants of the conquistadores who have been here since the 16th century.
But in addition to Spanish, over 1 million U.S. residents speak each of the following languages (in order of frequency): Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, French (not Creole, but including immigrants from Francophone West Africa, who may also speak a native African language, e.g. from Senegal, Waloof), Korean, and German. Nearly 1 million speak either Arabic or Russian. In addition, we have between 500,000 and 900,000 speaking (in order) Creole French, Italian, Portuguese, Hindi, and Polish, and notable (though smaller) recent immigrant groups coming initially as refugees, speaking Hmong, Serbo-Croatian, Laotian, Cambodian, Farsi, and Somali. Hardly “immigrant,” but notable, are the 169,000 speakers of Navajo, the largest home language group by far among Native Americans.
More important for our purposes than the number of speakers is the proportion of each language group that the American Community Survey (ACS) has determined as not speaking English at all or not speaking English well. For the record, the top 10 ratios, by native language, are:
Seven of these are Asian languages, and, with the exception of Vietnamese and Spanish, all use scripts other than the Roman alphabet of English (I am including Hmong among these, even though some contend that, historically, there was no written language that could be called “Hmong”). Putting these together with 2010 Census data, that means there are 9.7 million native speakers of Spanish and 2.1 million native speakers of the other 9 languages all living in the United States and not speaking English. The ACS does not provide data on reading or writing English, but one can reasonably assume that the list of 20-plus-percent proportion of limited-English-language populations, by native language, would be a lot longer and more diverse if ACS included orthographic considerations in reading and writing. Literacy, to repeat, is distinct from audio/lingual fluency. We are thinking of the children in these groups and of these groups, and of the magnitude and linguistic elements of generational literacy shift in each language group.
The overall data necessary to estimate what higher education is seeing and will see are fragmented and difficult. The oldest rigorous data on the proportion of non-English dominant speakers in the 12th grade and teetering on entrance to higher education are from the National Center for Education Statistics’ High School & Beyond/Sophomore Cohort longitudinal study: 5 percent. But a body of 12th-graders does not capture what higher education will eventually count, so we need some further and more contemporary guidance. The children of current non-English dominant households entered the U.S. at different stages of life (including being born in the U.S.), entered school at different times, and had to learn English as a fulcrum of their schooling. When they arrive in higher education, then, they are not wholly bereft of the world’s default second language. The basic figures from the NCES Beginning Postsecondary Students longitudinal study of 2003-2009, which covers entering students of all ages, excluding foreign students in the U.S. on visas, are as follows:
Children of Immigrants
English Not Primary Language
All entering students
Dividing these groups by age at entrance to higher education (the most significant demographic variable in the standard universe of such variables) does not change these proportions much at all. The dividing age year used was 20. And since the National Clearinghouse for English Language Acquisition tells us that the number of English language learners enrolled in ELL courses in pre-collegiate education was 5.3 million in 2005-6 (and 5.3 million does not account for all second language students), the challenge to higher education to mark the extent of their participation and state of their English language use eight years later is even greater than what these data -- reflecting a considerable increase of the proportion of non-English dominant students since the 5 percent of the High School & Beyond/Sophomore Cohort as seniors in 1982 -- say of 2003.
These are not small proportions of the entering postsecondary population, and their progress and degree completion rates (lower than those of native speakers of English by roughly 6 percent) may well be influenced by their language status and various aspects of their language histories. Languages obviously differ, and differ in terms of their similarities to English, in terms of morphology, orthography, and phonology. Non-English-speaking environments also differ in terms of saturation of second language media, Internet use by immigrants, and concentrations of commerce serving local populations. Too, language maintenance traditions vary for each of these immigrant groups. We have a history of language maintenance dating to German-speaking immigrants in the Midwest in the mid-19th century. Unless countries are officially bilingual or trilingual (Canada, Belgium, Finland, Ireland, and Switzerland, for noted examples in the West), you don’t see much formal language maintenance elsewhere. How much we still practice, and in what forms, is something our current second language students in higher education will tell us if and when we get to interview them with a consortium of teams advised by second language acquisition experts (see below).
Most importantly, some immigrant cultures and their languages are concentrated in very specific regions of the United States. Institutions of higher education that serve these geographic areas are thus more likely than others to witness enrollments of specific language background groups. For example, the greater San Francisco area is more likely to provide for students from Tagalog-speaking backgrounds; greater Minneapolis-St. Paul for Somali and Hmong speakers; San Jose and Houston for Vietnamese; greater Miami for Luzo-Portuguese (Brazilian); the eastern suburbs of Los Angeles and Flushing in Queens for two very different socioeconomic groups of Chinese; Russians in Brooklyn; Wayne County in Michigan for Arabic speakers; and while they are located everywhere, particularly concentrated populations of Spanish speakers in South Texas and the Central Valley of California.
Why is this geo-demography important? Because when you get in your car to gather information that just might help folks get further down the education thruway, it helps to know precisely where you’re going.
In this case, I propose, we can find captured populations among students from specific second language backgrounds who are recent enrollees in colleges and community colleges in the geo-demographic target areas, and ask them a series of questions on family language background and use, and on their own experiences moving through the chain from language 1 to language 2. One needs college partners in those areas, of course, both to identify the students of interest and to urge them to take an online survey consuming no more than 30 minutes. Do we know whether sufficient numbers of students can be found to answer our questions and begin to provide guidance? No, but our chances are better with geo-demographic targeting.
I’ve got a survey for first- and second-year college students ready to roll to a second language acquisition review panel. It seeks to document features and dominances of language use in the student’s household, peer groups, and work environments, the student’s language transition experiences in high school and early college months, first language maintenance, and focuses on areas of linguistic friction between first language and English.
What we have learned from the self-assessment forms of Europass (designed to enhance cross-border mobility in the labor market) is that voluntary respondents (and there have been about 600,000 in Europe to date who have completed “language passports”) are very honest and forthcoming about what they can do and how well in languages other than that from which they emerged, in what environments they learned second and third languages, and how.
We are less interested in language 1 to language 2 issues such as transfer, semantic judgments, code switching, and speech registers since we would not be asking questions on these well-trod paths of second language acquisition research.
At a time when immigration policy is on the front desks of legislators, we are more interested in story lines, promising and limiting, and commonalities as well as differences by language group. The end product would be a portrait that every institution serving similar students can use, for the benefit of future students, and not merely in “Open Enrollment English” classes, either. Those students, as I learned in 1970, are not remedial.
Clifford Adelman is a senior associate at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.
Over the past few years, partisanship in Washington has grown to the point that few substantive bills become law. The partisan divide at times seems insurmountable. Immigration reform has a chance to be a rare bipartisan exception.
Our nation has long prided itself on being a land of opportunity for those seeking a better life. With time, however, our immigration system has broken down. The system neither fairly serves those who want to come here nor maximizes the economic opportunities that immigrants can provide for this nation.
Recognizing this, Congress may finally act. While the U.S. House of Representatives is still developing legislation, immigration reform is steadily moving forward in the Senate where a bipartisan "Gang of Eight" drafted a strong bill that is serving as the legislative foundation. The Senate is currently debating amendments to this proposal with a vote on the overall measure expected this week.
This bill deserves the full support of higher education because it presents an extraordinary opportunity for our nation, including colleges and universities whose missions to promote education, research and economic growth will be advanced with immigration reform. Those of us in higher education must seize this moment to urge our senators to pass this bill. While the situation seems ripe for agreement, we know far too well that even the smallest bumps in the road can cause this process to unravel. It’s critical to underscore that a well-stocked pool of talent at American universities will feed directly into American businesses and create new ones that will help power our nation’s economy forward. The more we collectively make the case for the economic benefits of reform, the better the chances for overwhelming passage.
The bipartisan bill moving steadily through the Senate is filled with an array of provisions that have been long overdue. The measure establishes an expedited pathway to citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants. These young people are here through no decision of their own and 65,000 of them graduate from U.S. high schools each year. They should have a process in place to become citizens. And they also should have the opportunity to go to their states' public colleges and universities at in-state tuition rates at the state’s discretion while participating in federal student loan and work study programs. The Senate bill would make all of this possible.
The Gang of Eight and many others also recognize the economically self-defeating policy of training the best international STEM students at U.S. universities only to force them to leave for no reason other than a lack of employment visas. To fix this, the bill streamlines and expands the green card process and eliminates many of the current system’s worst features. To be fair, there are some further improvements the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) would still like to see made either through the amendment process now or in conjunction with action in the House, such as ensuring that agriculture, natural resource, and other science fields are included within the definition of STEM. Nevertheless, overall the provisions in the bill are a vast improvement from the current system.
And just as important as having the best and brightest students in our classrooms is having the top professors from around the world to teach them. APLU and our fellow higher education associations worked very hard to successfully secure an amendment to rid the bill of several bureaucratic hurdles that would impede some universities utilizing the H-1B visa process that authorizes such temporary work. As a result of advocacy efforts with federal relations officers of many universities, higher education associations, and the critical support of the Gang of Eight, the bill no longer places some universities within a suspect class of H-1B users considered H-1B skilled worker dependent employers.
Those opposed to immigration reform are aggressively working to derail any action. They are calling, e-mailing, tweeting, mailing, faxing, and doing everything they can to overwhelm House and Senate offices in order to block reform. To counter that, the higher education community must unite and let our lawmakers know that those other voices do not represent the majority of Americans.
The Senate bill includes most of the changes those of us in the higher education community have been seeking for the past several decades. Now that we find them included in a comprehensive immigration bill making its way through Congress we cannot allow this chance to slip away. Doing so is important for higher education, but most of all it is important for our country.
Peter McPherson is president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities.
The Obama administration's policy to allow work permits for some students whose parents came to the U.S. illegally may have little direct impact on higher education, but colleges are helping students pursue the new status.