Smart Borders

All future postings from blogger Matthew Webster will now appear on:

http://smartborders.wordpress.com

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Duty Free

        The border is a fascinating anomaly. Here, pesos and dollars can be spent on either side of the Rio Grande. Spanish and English are accepted at most places of business, and the schools teach countless students who cross a bridge every day for their education. Everyone knows medicines are cheaper in Mexico, and just a 90-cent toll to walk across. Animals cross in broad daylight unhindered by la migra.

Which brings us to the singular case of duty-free goods. A host of duty-free shops on either side of the border sell discounted liquor and tobacco products. The buyer gets a claims ticket, walks to the bridge, and as they are passing through the turnstile, their product is then handed to them. All that is left is to walk across to Matamoros, then turn around and head back through U.S. Customs. The very idea seems ludicrous, laughable, and yet thousands of people do it a week.

Duty-free stores highlight the absurdity of our current, unresponsive, dehumanized borders. They are set up to be impermeable for people (think the 2006 Secure Fence Act), and yet goods and products are encouraged to cross the border many times. When the United States moved many of its automobile and textile manufacturers over to Mexico, this free movement of products was surely brokered into the deal. Why then are people viewed so differently by the current immigration laws?

America’s immigration laws are being disobeyed covertly nationwide. Some 12 million illegal immigrants currently work and reside in the United States. The problem, is, that those businesses which lured them to the United States do not want to “declare them” to customs or fight for a real path to their citizenship. No, instead, American capitalism is content to keep them illegal (read exploitable).

In his publication Young India, Mohandas Gandhi worded it in the following way.

We have too long been mentally disobedient to the laws of the State and have too often surreptitiously evaded them, to be fit all of a sudden for civil disobedience. Disobedience to be civil has to be open and non-violent. (emphasis mine)

Gandhi clearly saw that the rules were being bent freely. He decried this form of evasive disobedience, though, because it merely bends the law and encourages lawlessness. The world is a different place because men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. chose not to bend bad laws but instead break them, openly and fully intending to accept the state’s punishment. Only then can true change happen.

Starting with the Bracero Programs in 1942 which sponsored about 4.5 million migrant workers, the United States has uneasily bent its laws concerning immigrants it deems it needs economically but does not want socially. Countless restaurants and fields and factories across these United States currently employ Mexicans and other illegal immigrants at substandard wages and without benefits. This “duty-free” work force is capitalistic cowardice.

If we truly welcome immigrant labor, our immigration laws must be reformed immediately. For too many years, government policy has been “hard” on immigration and soft on enforcement. This sort of double-speak, this mental disobedience embodied by the border has allayed the conscience of Capitol Hill, has freed it of its duty to its citizens, those Americalmost immigrants, and those businesses valuing an economic edge above social welfare.

However, we are never free of our duty to any resident of these United States. Pretending that 12 million living and breathing and loving and working people are negligible simply because of they lack a classification that came to many of us freely at birth is to ignore our duty. For Americans, our borders have been “duty-free” places for decades. Our modern wars abroad do not touch us anymore with rationing, peace-gardens, and can drives and so cease to be real; in the same way, Americans are granted an international bill of rights at birth which enables them almost carte blanche access to the rest of the world. How different it is just a few hundred feet across a river!

There is no such thing as “duty-free” living, and it is our duty to speak out against border policies and immigration laws which are unjust and limit residents’ rights. As Gandhi famously wrote, “Noncooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good.”

Words are…Power!

WORDS ARE….POWER

    This call-and-response begins class every single day in F114. I impress upon my students that I love my job because literacy is the heart of life. If you do not have a working literacy, you are forced to believe everything you hear. Without the ability to read, analyze, and check sources, my students must take everything I tell them at face value; and while I would never intentionally lie to them, there are plenty in this world who are less scrupulous with the truth.

    At the heart of students’ success is a working literacy. OCHEM, Fluid Mechanics, Intro to Statistics, World Geography, Government – all of these courses are based on a working written language. This fact is highlighted in border schools, where ESL students comprise the vast majority of the student population. The success of each students can largely be predicted by that student’s literacy. Additionally, Mexican culture was a primarily oral culture until just a few years ago, and still many parents and their children do not prize the capacity to mark and interpret black strikes on white pulp.

    Which brings me to the subject at hand. The national push to “modernize” our educational system can be summed up in a dark anecdote published by Time Magazine.

Rip Van Winkle awakens in the 21st century after a hundred-year snooze and is, of course, utterly bewildered by what he sees. Men and women dash about, talking to small metal devices pinned to their ears. Young people sit at home on sofas, moving miniature athletes around on electronic screens. Older folk defy death and disability with metronomes in their chests and with hips made of metal and plastic. Airports, hospitals, shopping malls–every place Rip goes just baffles him. But when he finally walks into a schoolroom, the old man knows exactly where he is. “This is a school,” he declares. “We used to have these back in 1906. Only now the blackboards are green.” [“How to Bring Our Schools Out of the 20th Century” Dec. 10, 2006]

 

The past few years of NCLB have seen the American education system throwing millions of dollars to “technologize” its neediest schools. A week after Amazon.com released its revolutionary Kindle ebook system, some may be signing the death warrant of paperback books and their inclusion in our educational system. Grants abound for electronic funding and computer purchases, and private backers love to revolutionize and modernize needy schools (as opposed to buying them 500 books 1/10 the cost).

    Currently, border schools such as the one in which I teach subscribe to 3-5 different computer literacy programs aimed at different student populations. They also “utilize” at least that many test-preparation programs for reading. Many schools have SmartBoards in every class, several boast ELMO’s, and virtually every school is equipped with the bare necessities of their thousand-dollar LCD projectors. Still, however, at the end of the day, my particular school, like many other schools, lacks the capacity to provide books for its students. IN my particular case, I can only supply books for one of my 5 classes. Our school houses only 60 copies of Romeo and Juliet, despite the fact that all 900 freshman are required to read it each year.

    In the well-intentioned hope of modernizing, we are are neglecting the very heart of literacy – personal, private, independent reading. It is good and well if a students can interpret words in a movie or HTML, but they must also be able to glean information from a single sheet of pressed wood. Nothing can replace the physical joy of breaking in the spine of a new book, of completing that last page, of conquering a book, of downing your first full novel.

    At best, these technological frills are good supplements. Our students will not learn reading if they are never enabled to have reading homework. I have printed 100 copies of Huckleberry Finn from the amazing Project Gutenberg for my students, just so that they could interact with the text and take it home to read independently. I have also utilized a grant to purchase a book for every single one of my students to read and keep. For some, it was the first book they had ever read; the book took on new meaning as a trophy for them and, quite often, for their family. And by entrusting students with their own books, we as educators are teaching them personal responsibility and independence. The excuse that books are old-fashioned, costly, or unnecessary will not hold true unless there are no more books at all. The excuse that technology is the future is based off the implied fact that students possess basic literacy. With increased access to text but decreased literacy skills, our students can never hope to succeed in today’s world.

Words are Power.

Rio Grande Valley Tactical Infrastructure EIS Document Response, or The Difference between 1907 and 2007

    2007 marks the centennial of the United States’ peak year of immigration. 1907 marked a year where, despite awful discrimination against Asians in the ongoing Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the introduction of the Japanese Gentleman’s Agreement, America drew well over a million to its shores to participate in our thriving economy. The centennial of that year finds a very different attitude towards immigration in the polis of America. With the inhibitive and overly restrictive immigration laws and lottery system, we have no real concept of how many migrants, sojourners, asylum-seekers, refugees, and visa over-stayers “immigrated” this year. We do, however, know that some 12 million extralegal citizens currently reside in the continental United States, as defined by the Mexican-American War; in addition to these teeming extralegals, there are millions of other Americans complicit in this immigrant labor and success in our nation.

    While positive, concrete immigration reforms stalled in a staunchly partisan triumvirate political system last year, the only significant immigration legislation in recent years is the Secure Fence Act of 2006. This legislation is slowly, imperceptibly creeping along the Mexican-American border, attempting to replace the natural Rio Grande with the inefficacious Muro Grande. the 538-page U.S. Army Corps of Engineers report entitled “Draft Environmental Impact Statement for Construction, Maintenance, and Operation of Tactical Infrastructure Rio Grande Valley Sector, Texas,” detailing the border barrier and its efforts was just published to the public this past week. Having read these words with an eye to its impact on my own backyard of Brownsville, Texas, it appears to be a shameless show of smoke and mirrors. The purported aim of this barrier, in keeping with the same goals of this present administration which has already brought us to the desert of Iraq and the shores of Cuba, is first and foremost to counter terrorism, presumably being trucked across our Southern border as you read this. In addition, though, the border wall is also supposed to deter drugs (to help our healthy black market “just say no”) and stymie the flow of illegal immigrants in ways that legislative reform cannot.

    Preexistent in this lengthy document, however, is its own unstated downfall. The document brings up token dissent as a means of disproving “all” alternatives to a border wall stretching some 70 miles through the Rio Grande Valley and up to 700 miles along the entire border, but the criticism undoubtedly ricochets back at the wall. The report states that a natural hedge would slow crossings and promote nature, but that it regrettably would not be a foolproof deterrent and would need constant reparations. Such criticism could be directed at the border wall itself. Its staunchest supporters admit it will do littler more than slow down illegal crossings. The report itself states that, because the wall is not continuous, it will probably just shift illegal activity to other, arguably more treacherous, crossing zones.

    The document also proposes that the wall is a “force multiplier” to aid in stopping immigration. Intriguingly, this has been the rallying cry for American businesses so desirous of cheap immigrant labor. Additionally, this report ignores the fact that providing more legal means to citizenship, as opposed to vindictive threats of deportation and Catch-22 scenarios for extralegal aliens already here, would do more to reduce illegal immigration. Just as providing CHIP and family assistance does not serve as an incentive for the impoverished to have illegitimate children, neither will this sort of immigration reform open up the door to illegal immigrants. Rather, it will provide a way and means for qualified individuals to forgo a cruel lottery system in order to officially enter the ranks of the Americans they work alongside already.

    The border wall espoused in this document, replete with its treatment of dissent, is politically little more than a token gesture that both Republicans and Democrats are “tough on immigration,” though hardheaded and medieval in their means. Tokenism is, as Martin Luther King, Jr. writes in his “Bold Design for a New South,”

not only…a useless goal, but…a genuine menace. It is a palliative which relieves emotional distress, but leaves the disease and its ravages unaffected. It tends to demobilize and relax the militant spirit which alone drives us forward to real change.

Socially, ethically, morally, and economically, the Secure Fence Act which is now being treated as inevitable, is a negative, self-defeating gesture which will cripple our workforce, legislate nativism, forgo and delay meaningful immigration reform, and sap precious resources from our nation’s poorest. This wall will brutalize the fragile ecosystem and cultural legacy of La Frontera and will set up a racially-suspicious immigration which leads heavily in favor of Western European countries with its emphasis on numbers, irregardless of population size. This lengthy literary exercise in bureaucracy will soon disappear in the vaults of the Library of Congress, but if we erect a barrier in this Western Hemisphere and ignore real legislative reform for immigration, its legacy will be that of 1924 and 1882, rather than that of 1907, the biggest year yet in immigration. Future generations will peer inquisitive at our contemporary history, befuddled by the ways in which a country so in love with globalizing technology and overseas production could be so obstinately opposed to a globalizing populace.

Objects at Rest

    Some days at school, a teacher feels like a car colliding with an oak tree. Our job is easy, or at least easier, when we are educating and mentoring students already active in sports, the community, their churches, or their homes. The students which give teachers, schools, and communities the hardest time are those students at rest. This sums up the nationwide educator’s complaint of apathy at its worst.

    How does one move an object at rest? As a teacher, we exploit any prime motivators in our students’ lives in an effort to get them moving towards successful learning. But when a student lacks coaches, involved parents, spiritual advisors, or an employer, there is little to nothing a teacher can do to lever them. Intrinsic motivation such as grades and “self-respect” only influence someone who is interested in change or motion.

    This sentiment is present to some extent at all schools. A border school, however, and specifically a school in the poorest border city in the United States, has these motionless drifters in ample abundance. The students who must be the most motivated in order to succeed are often the most listless and defeated. Some of this is because they have been discouraged in the past, beaten down by authority figures and offered little prospects of succeeding.

     However, some of this has to be the environment in which they live. The border is a unique area of the United States, no doubt. It is the home to huddled masses waiting for their loved ones to one day cross the border. La frontera is an alternate reality, where Spanish and English and Spanglish all are legitimate and equally useful in all contexts, public and private. The border is poor, and the economics of poverty can be seen in the gaudy show of “wealth” through bling, cars on credit, stereos, and designer clothes. Many of the border’s residents do not have the means, whether legal or economic, to head north, and slowly that desire ebbs away from them. As a result, they are content to live in their parents’ house until they marry at 35, content to endure a minimum-wage job, satisfied to live and function in a largely illiterate or literary-neutral location.

    How, then, does a teacher ignite dreams in students which are not there? Is it even right, to light fires under students which may only burn them and their families? I sit at my laptop drinking coffee, clutching my Protestant work ethic and my hopes and dreams, wondering if it is ethical for me to foist them upon my students, if I even can. Perhaps a teacher’s job is twofold: 1.) to teach every student to varying extents; 2.) to give those students who seem destined for more the means to achieve something outside their environment.

    Through all this, it becomes painfully clear that a teacher never teaches a class; we can only ever teach students.

An Idea Whose Time has Come

In 2006, the Secure Fences Act was passed in both Congress and the Senate. The funds have since been approved, and the entire project is merely pending a few token studies concerning its impact on the environment, its feasibility, and its pecuniary implications. How did we arrive at such a place in American history?

The whole nation has been crying out for immigration reform since well before the 1960s. JFK heard their voices, but he was killed before he could radically change the quota system. Since then, restrictive immigration laws have been tightened and roughly enforced on our nations’ southernmost border and in our reluctance to accept asylum-seekers (refugees in other countries).

Our borders are places of violent clashes, deportation, and imposing fences.

Our legal immigrants are forced to become pochos, forced to forget their homeland in an effort to distance themselves from extralegal citizens the government and the media has vilified and quietly deported.

“Illegal” immigrants live in terror, working low-wage jobs, foregoing medical care, and paying extortionate rates for normal amenities in an effort to remain in a country which disrespects them and the country they left behind.

The entire nation cries out for immigration reform. Even the politicians could hear it on Capitol Hill. They could hear it, but amidst the din of partisan politics and the difficulty of making tough decisions on true immigration reform, both the Democrats and the Republicans opted for an easy way out, a symbol of border security and “immigration reform.” The wall was passed overwhelmingly by most major politicians, including my own Texas senators Cornyn and Hutchison, as well as mainstream presidential candidates such as Obama and Clinton.

And so here we are today. Brownsville, Texas, will be studied later on this month so that construction of the wall can begin in 2008. The symbol of a wall, laughable and medieval and impossible to believe, looks as if it will be coming next year unless the citizenry of the United States can raise its voice once more, refuse to be distracted by “token” gestures of immigration reform, and demand a real solution instead of this expensive “tokenism.”

Victor Hugo famously said, “There is no greater power on earth than an idea whose time has come.” The idea of immigration has been a long time coming, and it must be nonviolently urged to the forefront of American thinking.

The clearest fight for true immigration reform and against pseudo-solutions is the proposed border wall on our southern border. As Martin Luther King, Jr., outlines in “The Time for Freedom has Come,” we must do this by three key steps. First, any efforts to halt the construction of the border wall must expose the moral defenses of pro-fence politicians. The moral element never figured into the border wall monologue, but if this fence is to be stopped, a dialogue must begin which addresses the moral element of such a symbol of separation. This blog site is a beginning, but it must be preached from the pulpit and headlined in our newspapers. It must be sung over webcasts and it must be written in informed letters to our politicians. The moral element is clear – a Mexican border barrier signifies mistrust, racism, and nationalism – but the message has not been clearly voiced nor loudly proclaimed.

The second keystone concept of nonviolent resistance for King is that it must weaken the morale of its opposition. If well organized, a national boycott against key companies or an illegal immigrant strike could certainly weaken the morale of an opposition which secretly welcomes illegal contribution to our national GDP but publicly denounces extralegal workers. This contradiction has existed for decades, and its demise must be one of the main aims of any nonviolent movement.

Lastly, a nonviolent call for true immigration reform and no border wall must work on our nation’s conscience. So far, deportation detention centers like those at Raymondville, Texas, and the processing centers like the one at Port Isabel, Texas, have worked largely under the radar of human rights groups and national publications. It is difficult to prick the nation’s conscience without media coverage. We must no longer wait for the Associated Press to run a feature article on a single immigrant in a single detention center. These violations of basic human rights must be forced into the public eye via nonviolent demonstrations. Illegal immigrants should no longer suffer in these places alone and unnoticed. The Bible beckons us to be a “voice for the voiceless,” and nonviolent demonstrations should aim to translate these muffled calls for help from Spanish or Sudanese to an English which will awaken the once-great collective conscience of our country which has been lulled to sleep these 45 years.

BY working on the American conscience (and by this I mean all the Americas), by weakening the morale of supporters of immigration tokenism, and by exposing the moral defenses of those who would call for a Mexican border wall, nonviolent resistance will not only block the construction of the wall but will fluently call for reconsideration and reconstruction of our nation’s outdated, provincial philosophy on immigration. But we must begin by countering the wall; to ignore this physical representation of bad immigration policy would make us akin to the priest in the parable of the Good Samaritan, plotting a sermon on brotherly love as he strides past the bleeding wayfarer. The time for this idea has come; the time is now.

Further Insight into a Flawed System

Every once in a while, I am overwhelmed by the fact that, as a teacher, I am messing with people’s lives.

Today, that all became poignantly clear as I began my first day of reviewing ESL students’ folders and determining whether or not they could exit the program this year.  We have students who are exiting after 2 years and students who will be retained for their tenth.  Special Ed. students have no hope of exiting the ESL program because they take a modified test.  I was discouraged by the number of students who took 1 out of the 3 mandatory tests flippantly and thus were retained for yet another year.

One questions a system that pays schools a certain dollar amount per ESL student, which obviously encourages schools to retain their ESL students rather than graduate them in the best interest of the student.  One also questions a system that can contribute so much paperwork to a child’s student id, yet apparently so little to their overall education.  For too long, it has been solely the number of students in a school’s ESL program and not the quality of that program which warranted government money.  As we move forward into an age of increasing accountability, I pray that the students are the better for it.

It was joyous to me whenever one of my current students successfully exited the program, as if I were in some way responsible for their learning in middle school last year.  The sad realization was that these mini-celebrations happened too few and far between.

Perhaps it is the fact that these students have little reinforcement at home.  Maybe they don’t read or write because none of their friends do, none of their heroes or role models do.  Maybe it is our curriculum, or our classrooms, maybe the system or NCLB or policy.  Whatever it is, it is messing with people’s lives.  Just as I must hold myself to that standard at the end of each grading period, our nation will answer this question about the quality of its education in but a few years.

Published in: on September 25, 2007 at 3:08 am  Leave a Comment  

A demonstration

This past weekend I had the pleasure of taking part in a demonstration against the border wall here in Brownsville, TX. We stood on the international bridge, straddling the rio and the imaginary border between these two nations, protesting a law which would build a wall of division right here.

Admittedly, it was exhilarating to stand out in the sun in an effort to bring light to the countless tangible dilemmas with such a wall and the few intangible, unrealistic benefits which are touted by this effort. It is always envigorating to gather together; the Bible was right in saying that, “wherever two or more are gathered together in my name, there I will be.” There is an electric energy, and it was certainly felt this Saturday as held hands and signs of “No Border Wall; No al Muro.”

I was even moved enough to speak at the aftermath rally at UTB. While my comments were brief, rambling, and unprepared, my soul was pricked for the issue of citizenship. Yet I was troubled by the disorganized nature of the rally, the gungho support of everything and yet nothing well. This protest, like so many others, had its hangers-on, those outliers who are out for a revolution for revolutions’ sake, the individuals that would stir no one if they were imprisoned, however unjustly they cried it to be. King and Gandhi would have looked askance at the divided nature of the group, the multitudonous cacophony of words and concerns which distracted from the main issue at hand. The gathering eventually fizzled out, having said some important things which were lost amidst so many off-track hoorahing. One cannot be civilly disobedient in everything, or else no one knows where the protest lies…

Still, as the third week of school begins with my ESL students, the idea of citizenship looms ever more on my imagination as the way in which the United States can alleviate much of the touted problems with illegal immigrants in this country. It is infinitely hard for me to look at juniors and seniors who have labored four or five years to get a decent education, who have never revisited family or friends in Mexico for fear of being unable to reenter the country, who have dreams of college and yet cannot secure citizenship because it is based not on merit but on a blind lottery, not on earned rights but on birthright.

It is lunacy that ours, a country built on the work of hard-working immigrants from a host of other nations should base its constitution of a legal, voting citizen on the birthright of that individual. In essence, this was what Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about when he preached equality for all, regardless of the race, gender, or culture to which they were born. Let us now add to that nationality. It is just as bigoted and backwards to base citizenship on a person’s birthplace as it is to base it on their birth-race. The plethora of hard-working, diversifying foreign-born sons and daughters “illegally” living here or struggling to gain citizenship here deserve these inalienable rights as much, if not more, than the man or woman born here consuming yet not contributing to the brotherhood of this land.

We must redefine the very idea of a citizen, for it is not patriots or predecessors who create true citizens, but a genuine willingness to contribute to this community, an eagerness for education…. No one in this country should study here for 5 years and be denied a college education because they do not bear the trite title of American citizen. What hypocrites we are, to turn away an educated voter from becoming a legal citizen! Our country cannot continue to be great if it, in and of itself, does not greet globalization with the arms it must. There must be means provided for illegal immigrants within our coutnry to work towards citizenship and there must be more precise qualifications for incoming immigrants. This would not decrease the number of new citizens in this country, but it would greatly bolster the number of new citizens actively pursuing education, meaningful work, and a voting democratic community.

The best way to defeat your enemy is to make him your friend – that is the message of love, the heart of the Gospel, the lifeblood of nonviolence. Granting citizenship to residents willing to work towards it will truly strengthen our country, dispel any supposed security risk, and make it that much easier to pinpoint those few residents living in the United States who do not actually wish to become citizens.

As I return to school tomorrow, I will again teach my students irregardless of their citizenship status, irregardless of their birthplace, without thought of the language or religion or culture spoken at home. I wish there was some way to invite the American government into my class, into every class in a border town, to see the almost effortless ways their immigration worries have already been solved.

It always rains the first day of school, Mister…

Another school year begins in the Rio Grande Valley. As expected, it rains. The freshman in my class look as if my room were the last refuge from a deluge just outside my door. They are young, malleable, innocent and idealistic (though they would indignantly deny it). This will not always be so.

Working with freshman English students, and specifically with ESL (English as a Second Language) students, gives one intimate insight into the ways in which politics, immigration, and language acquisition all converge on the shoulders of students too young to make sense of the word “adolescence.” How many of these students will disappear as the borders tighten and the border wall begins changing from a symbol to a concrete structure? How can a school encourage pride both in a Spanish-speaking heritage and in an American dream they’ve only seen in our oh-so-pervasive media?

Immigrant students, be they legal, illegal, or refugees, inevitably struggle with the sense of identity I am tinkering with on this first day of school. Mexican students wish to please their parents by doing better than they, but these teens also worry about becoming “pochos” who are no longer Mexican. In the Rio Grande Valley, specifically, it is all too easy for newcomers to speak broken Spanish, fractured English, mish-mashed Spanglish – at what point do students no longer feel the necessity to develop a proper language of official discourse?

All these things flow through my mind as I take attendance on the first day of my sophomore year of teaching. There is a primal desire for language here, something which might go uncharted by state tests and NCLB legislations but is evident in these students’ giddiness for the first days of a new school year. Given the right tools and a learning environment which respects other cultures through the particulars of English language, these students could move out of the Valley, could succeed in New York, in Chicago, in Houston, in Minneapolis. Given only some vocabulary without direction, though, they will be stuck in the netherland which is the border towns along the Rio Grande, a “ghetto” both distended and remote.

Published in: on August 28, 2007 at 1:31 am  Leave a Comment