Most immigrants didn't go to Martha's Vineyard: What our schools can learn from that

There are lessons for both students and teachers in the Martha's Vineyard spectacle. But they may not be obvious

Published October 2, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Haitian migrants hurry after crossing the Rio Bravo to seek political asylum in the US, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico, on May 20, 2022. (HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP via Getty Images)
Haitian migrants hurry after crossing the Rio Bravo to seek political asylum in the US, as seen from Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state, Mexico, on May 20, 2022. (HERIKA MARTINEZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis made headlines last month by shipping a relative handful of unsuspecting Venezuelan immigrants, like cargo, to Martha's Vineyard. But the lessons that young people in this country are learning from that episode are entirely the wrong ones. It is time for teachers, parents, and our community of neighbors to change the way we talk about the cruel nature of politics and the inhumane treatment of immigrants in this country. 

As usual, the news is focused on talking about immigrants, not on talking with them. There are nearly half a million undocumented students in the U.S. schools today listening carefully to how teachers discuss the economics, policies or moral arguments around immigration policies. More likely, however, these students — and their more than 75 million classmates — are learning the uncompromising lessons of silence, apathy, inaction and fear. 

In a climate that makes it increasingly frightening and dangerous for teachers to discuss politics in their classrooms — not least because of policies enacted by DeSantis and his allies — far too many of our students are learning that the arithmetic of trafficking human bodies from one part of the country to another has nothing to do with the standards-aligned instruction in our classrooms, or that our national focus on "learning loss" leaves no time to talk about the lives imperiled by anti-immigration stunts.

There are more than 11 million individuals labeled as undocumented in this country, and the vast majority of them were not on one of DeSantis' chartered planes or Texas Gov. Greg Abbott's buses in recent weeks. We may be out of sight and out of mind for most readers, but we have been the unreported essential workers in this country decades before such a term came into common parlance.

Over the past year, we have been studying how to understand and construct a kind of critical empathy around the contexts of immigration, difference and change. Our research has focused on narrative and personal experience. The Martha's Vineyard spectacle, for instance, is one of a set of cruel reminders of the lack of agency afforded to immigrants in this country. When it comes to the lessons about immigration that students — and adults, for that matter — could be learning, our schools have been resoundingly silent. 

In mainstream education, immigration is largely the domain of history classes, typically depicted as something that happened in the past or, more recently, as the flame below the multicultural melting pot that has created this "nation of immigrants." If schools typically teach  immigration as an object-lesson of optimistic American progress, that in no way offers an accurate picture of the fractured state of debate and human anguish experienced today.

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Schools need to broaden where and how civic issues like immigration are discussed. As we've argued before, every teacher is a civics teacher, and the lessons of immigration must live in all subject areas. English teachers, for example, might connect the lessons here to related literature about contemporary immigration or to drive student-driven inquiry into the root causes of immigration. Perhaps a more cynical English teacher might offer a lesson about irony beneath DeSantis' stunt: This summer has seen airports snarled with canceled flights and exorbitant airfares; the sheer luxury of chartering planes just for immigrants is strange messaging from the Florida governor. Most undocumented immigrants cannot safely enter airports without fear of deportation. So while a few dozen were flown across state lines at someone else's expense, most would never attempt such travel. There are many things this country takes away from its immigrants — adequate health care, safety, family, the future — and the ability to travel safely on airplanes when ticket prices are too high to bother is pretty far down the list. 

STEM teachers in general are often treated as if their classroom work has no connection to  contemporary issues of justice like immigration. But as our own research has explored, quantitative reasoning and understanding the civic dimensions of the world through data are key to student learning. Immigration must be a topic taken up in science and math classrooms. 

Though there are obviously developmental differences among age groups, immigration is a topic that can be explored across all grade levels. Young children of all backgrounds know the feeling of peril that comes with being dropped off in the morning, the fear of being left behind. Might that knowledge lead to moments of empathy and understanding for the kinds of voluntary and involuntary sacrifices many individuals in this country must make in the name of family or survival?

In our ongoing research, one central problem we've identified — from personal experiences and analysis of curriculum — is that there are few examples of immigration-related instructional opportunities in schools in general. Immigrant youth may be mocked or offered fewer educational opportunities due to language differences. Discussions of financial insecurity and legal precarity may be treated as private sources of shame in even the most progressive school districts. We don't talk or teach enough about immigration because, as a country, we don't know how.

Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott's PR stunts should remind us how little control immigrants have over their own lives. That's the lesson being implicitly taught in our schools right now.

Based on our own dialogue-driven research, that work starts with listening. Many of our classrooms are filled with immigrant youth with an abundance of expertise that is not often allowed to surface. Teachers can let young people share what they know, what they've heard and what they are wondering about as a starting place for our collective learning. This is the moral and civic imperative of immigration and education in schools today. 

The events of the past few weeks should remind us of how little control immigrants have over their own lives in this country. This is the lesson that is implicitly taught in our schools right now. To be clear, it wasn't just immigrants living in Republican-governed states like Texas and Florida that watched this news with marked trepidation. 

Here, in California, where we live and work, violence toward immigrants is frequent enough that it warrants only passing mention in the news. From the scorching heat wave of early September that substantially burdened agricultural workers to the escalating violence that local street vendors face daily, life for immigrants in supposed liberal havens like California is anything but safe. 

It doesn't take a Republican governor to remind us that immigrants are granted only temporary relief from the cruelty of America's confused policies. Our own on-the-ground research and work from scholars like Angela Garcia makes it clear that undocumented immigrants face constant and barely visible danger. A traffic stop in the wrong municipality could lead to a life upended  and the deportation process started.

When will teachers and schools find the courage to discuss the fact that immigrants cannot reliably lead free, safe and humane lives in the U.S.?

Democratic denunciations of DeSantis and Abbott's actions do little to impact the day-to-day experiences of those immigrants that didn't happen to find themselves aboard an unscheduled flight to a resort island off the coast of Massachusetts. For most of us, this entire episode has been another reminder that our lives are not our own and that this country is more than happy to treat us as political pawns or livestock. 

By Antero Garcia

Antero Garcia is an associate professor in the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University.

MORE FROM Antero Garcia

By Alix Dick

Alix Dick is a storyteller and filmmaker committed to issues of social justice living in Los Angeles.


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Commentary Education Immigration Martha's Vineyard Ron Desantis