By Michael A. Olivas, William B. Bates Distinguished Chair of Law at the University of Houston Law Center, and director of the school’s Institute of Higher Education Law & Governance.
Immigration has always been a complex transaction and dangerous sojourn, and local forces have attempted to control the process, especially as the country was forming and borders were not yet fully established. Throughout United States history, state and local politicians have introduced and enacted thousands of anti-alien bills. Some legislation has even been so mean-spirited as to advocate a repeal of 1982’s Plyler v. Doe, the watershed Supreme Court decision that required Texas to give undocumented children free access to public schools. In difficult economic times, elected officials find scapegoating aliens is an easy way to reach low-hanging fruit, as if these workers were the source of the sputtering economy. For example, Alabama enacted HB 56 (the “Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act”) in 2011, regarded as the most-draconian anti-immigrant legislation to date. The statute even required schools to conduct a census of undocumented children in schools, until it was enjoined by the trial and Circuit judges.
Such arguments and legislation, mixed in a cauldron amidst shrill warnings about the rights of “real Americans,” lead inevitably to a sense of divisiveness, racial superiority, and undifferentiated prejudice. Such imprecise, undifferentiated, and broad-brush swipes at “illegals” and “anchor babies” generally tar all the groups. Free-floating racialized animus often leads to a generalized resentment against all people of color, or “others,” especially those constructed as “foreigners.” If there were a group that holds promise to become productive, undocumented K-12 and college students would surely be that group. With the generally dismal schooling available to these students, that even a small percentage could meet the admission standards of colleges and universities is extraordinary. Given their status and struggle, each successful student represents a story of substantial accomplishment. Most of these students have parents who struggled to bring them to this country and exercised considerable risk to enable their achievements. That they succeed under extraordinary circumstances is remarkable to virtually all who observe them. These students’ success partially explains why so many educators and legislators have accepted Plyler and worked to assist them in navigating the complexities of school and college. Despite the success of anti-immigrant rhetoric in shaping a discourse and of restrictionists in fashioning resentments, reasonable legislators of both parties have attempted to address the issues these students face.