Not long ago one of the students in my English class asked what would happen to him if his mother was deported. Like so many young people in this country, he was worried about how his family would stay together if California followed in Arizona’s footsteps and started arresting and deporting undocumented workers. While most thirteen-year-olds are worried about passing their algebra test, some of my students were learning first-hand how dangerous the far reaching hands of bullies can reach. Roberto grew up in this country. His father is a United States citizen working for an established utility company. His mother is not a citizen, although she has lived in this country most her life. Like so many Hispanics across the country, Roberto and his parents are fearful that recent legal trends across the nation could tear apart his family. As a teacher, trained in the strategies on how to teach English and dedicated to a career in helping every student reach their potential, I felt helpless when Roberto asked his question. A trip to the counselor’s office was not going to make Roberto’s problem go away. All I could do was encourage him to learn more about recent legislation and perhaps write letters to local politicians. Deep inside I knew that the politicians behind Arizona’s immigration law probably would not be moved by a letter by a nervous junior high school student. Most bullies, whether they are hanging out on the playground or the local government building, lack the empathy to understand the emotional damage they are capable of inflicting.
Most of us have an image of the playground bully based on our own forgettable experiences of youth. I can still remember how humiliated I was when Janet Andrews ripped my precious patent leather pink purse out of my hands and threw it out the school bus window when I was in junior high. I did not dare speak up for fear of further humiliation. For some of us, the cruelty of the school bully was met with incredible shyness and paralyzing fear. Humiliation and torture was often compounded with every dreaded pimple and every devastating pound. For other unfortunate victims who were singled out for torture, the results might be physical or emotional harm or even death. For the past few years, celebrities like Dr. Phil are raising public awareness about bullying and listing strategies for eliminating bullying on his website such as adopting a “spirit of inclusion” in public schools. As an educator, I can appreciate the value of creating an inclusive atmosphere at school where every student is nurtured and accepted. Unfortunately, the new playground bully has no desire to act in a spirit of inclusion or show any degree of compassion to young people growing up in immigrant families.
In the past few years, many states have begun to institute laws of exclusion and discrimination for undocumented workers and their families. The plight of immigrant groups has always been decided by simple economics in this country. When jobs are plentiful, business owners happily employ unskilled laborers to perform tasks that American citizens deem unacceptable. In troubled times like these however, minority groups such as Hispanics are perceived as moochers living off of the taxes of hard working people and daring to allow their children sit among the rest of us Americans in public schools. In Arizona, an undocumented worker can be arrested and detained and deported for the crime of having not having proper citizenship documentation, possibly leaving families behind. Clearly the law was designed to unfurl the unwelcome mat to Hispanics in Arizona. With high unemployment rates and the number of families living in poverty increasing every day, the idea of getting rid of recent immigrants has become a national movement. At least sixteen states are currently attempting to enact laws which deny undocumented workers basic rights such as the right to drive legally, obtain subsidized housing and emergency medical care. There is even a movement to thwart the efforts of immigrants to obtain a public education. The wording of the laws varies from state to state but the message is the same: if you are not an American citizen, you do not belong in this country. The fact that anyone in Arizona can be arrested and detained if they are unable to produce citizenship paperwork to a police officer, is a terrifying thought for many Hispanics and people of color. Alabama has now gone even further than Arizona in discriminatory laws against immigrants. In this state, citizens must now produce immigration papers in order to obtain a variety of services, including registering their children for school. As a result of the new law, thousands of families are disappeared from the state within days of the bill’s passage and an estimated five percent of Hispanic students left Alabama’s public schools. It would appear that the bullies have taken over the playground, forcing thousands of young immigrant children from their schools, homes and American lives.
Many mental health professionals have concluded that social exclusion is a form of bullying which usually involves an imbalance of power between the victim and the perpetrator. Racist bullying involves targeting specific minority or cultural groups for exclusion or ostracism. The exclusion legislation in Alabama is a perfect example of government officials, with the help of law enforcement, are able to legally victimize individuals and their children. As undocumented immigrants are treated like common criminals and families are forced out of their homes and livelihoods that have taken years to build, children are suffering from serious symptoms of trauma. A National Council of La Raza report concluded that children who are forced out of their homes often suffer from fear, isolation and depression. Children who are living in fear of deportation are likely to suffer the same emotional harm as the children who are victimized by physical and emotional harm at the hands of cruel school classmates. According to Public Radio International, a school principal in Alabama reported that directly after the new immigration law passed, students came to the school in tears because they were fearful that they would return home and their parents would not be there. Principal Bill Lawrence of Foley Elementary School stated that many of the students were in hysterics. Why would anyone with even one ounce of compassion or respect for other human being want to inflict such damage to young children? Alabama State Senator Orr stated reported to the New York Times, “It’s going to take some time for the local labor pool to develop again.” Obviously Orr is unable to see the human toll this legislation is taking. To many of these bully politicians, immigrants from other countries are nothing more than cheap labor expected work, live and survive in this country at the convenience of businesses who hire them. The sad news is that labor includes human beings with dreams and desires like anyone else. Labor includes young students sitting in classes across the country.
Roberto is no different than most thirteen-year olds. He loves football and riding his meticulously decorated skateboard. He can’t wait until he is able to get his own cell phone that may come at Christmas, depending on positive reports from school. Roberto is bright, creative and capable of succeeding in college and landing a rewarding job someday. Unfortunately, the biggest bully on campus stands at the school gate with padlock in hand, waiting for the opportunity to lock Roberto and students like him out of school and out of the country.