Friday, April 9, 2010

A Reflection on the Trail by Ruben Casas

Posted on April 4, 2010 by grey

The culminating writing assignment in my first-year writing courses is a researched argument in which students are asked to critically analyze a controversial issue in our society. When I introduce the assignment I always recommend that students not attempt to solve the issue they choose to write about, instead I ask them to ask a more useful question or questions regarding the issue, or to better define a term that the stakeholders can’t seem to agree on. The reason for this, I tell my students, is because it’s unreasonable to expect that anyone can solve any of our society’s important issues in a 7 – 10 page paper for which they have three weeks to write, but (and if I’m to be honest—and yes, I’m going to be) the unstated reason lies with my own assumptions about what my students think they care about, and (more importantly) the limited experience in/with the issues they invariably write about: abortion, the legalization of marijuana, and gay marriage. And although I’ve been proven wrong on certain occasions, students often think they care about these issues enough to want to say something about them, when in reality they’re responding and/or reacting to the amount of attention these issue get in the media, and/or around their kitchen tables; the reason I don’t ask or even want students to attempt to solve the issues they think they care about is because I don’t think they know enough about the issues or the stakeholders to offer a solution that would serve any other the purpose than to further convince them of their opinions.

And then I had a student approach me to ask me if he could write about The DREAM Act.

While putting together the collection of stories that became the forth-coming book Papers: Stories by and About Undocumented Youth I became increasingly aware of the vast and sweeping effect the passing of this bill will have on very real people in our society. People with families, lovers, small, medium, and large-sized goals. People with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and people with extraordinary potential. People who, without proper and equal access to our society have, in so many cases, accomplished as much and more than their documented peers. Readers of this blog are probably intimately aware of so many stories of individuals who, like those on the Trail of DREAMs, stand to be benefited by the passing of the bill, but also to benefit the communities they come from.

In the three years that I’ve taught first-year writing few researched arguments have strayed from the issues I mention above (okay, occasionally I still get one about global warning. Still.), so when D— proposed to write about The DREAM Act I was immediately interested, not only because the issue veered away from the usual solipsistic paper proposals I get from students, but because D— had come out to me about his status two weeks before our conversation. He had gone through painstaking efforts to be in school, and a possible change in his status could result in his deportatin. Here was a student, for once, that had real stakes in the issue he was proposing to write about. Here was someone whose interest in the paper was motivated by more than casual interest. Here was a student with life experience enough to write book-length arguments about arguments. Here, finally, was someone who wanted to write about something they didn’t think they cared about.

D—‘s proposal was significant in other ways too. For one, his wasn’t the only paper that came in that term that was related to The DREAM Act (there were three total), which is proof that young people—regardless of their status—are becoming increasingly aware of the bill. Yet another reason why D—‘s paper was significant was because here, finally, was an issue and writers whose situation proved my assumptions wrong: there are some issues in our society that don’t have the luxury of more time, issues like that of immigration reform which, because they continue to go unresolved, further oppress members of society, break up families, squander potential, talent, and spirits, take lives. This time I couldn’t tell a student that he shouldn’t attempt to make a claim that solves a controversial issue in our society. For someone like D— there’s little use in writing papers that don’t unequivocally argue for the passing of a bill that will finally grant him unfettered access to his dreams, his goals, his aspirations.

The systematic oppression brought about by the current immigration laws make comprehensive immigration reform an issue that simply can’t be set aside for another day, a better time. And those most affected by current immigration laws can’t afford to take on the lax attitude so many lawmakers—even ones that publicly support legislation such as The DREAM Act—seem to have.

I just spent a couple of days and nights walking with The Trail of DREAMs, during which time I got a personal sense of the sense of urgency that these students feels, which isn’t unlike the sense of urgency so many young individuals feel as they see themselves affected by the inaction on the part of lawmakers. Students whose immediate life is at a stand-still because they can’t be employed, they can’t drive, and they can’t finance educations—they things they aspire to be as responsible and productive members of their communities, our society. Here I was with some of Florida’s top-performing students and leading community organizers learning about some of the most insidious effects of our current immigration laws. But more than that, I was learning that, once again, it is often the most marginalized members of our society who are wiling to go through great personal sacrifice to see positive change happen in our society. And let’s face it—our country has a history of upholding certain laws that systematically oppress certain members of society. Moreover, our country also has a history of resisting the changing of these laws. Take, for example, the claim made by certain clergy and religious leaders in Birmingham on the occasion of Martin Luther King’s visit and march in the city. “It’s not the right time,” they said, to which King logically replied that it was never the right time for the oppressor to liberate the oppressed. A similar situation exists now, and King’s argument still applies. The DREAM Act was introduced in 2001 (though it wasn’t called that until later) and here we are, almost a decade later, being told by yet another administration and another congress that it’s not the right time. And while other issues in our society might not be so pressing that they could be put off another day, another week, or another congressional session, passing of The DREAM Act cannot be put off any longer; another day, week, or month directly results in countless other broken families through deportation.

So, on what basis does this country continue to exclude millions of young people who have been initiated, raised, and educated to embrace the values of democracy, justice, and liberty from our society? On what basis does this society continue to squander the talent and potential of millions of its youth? On the basis of unjust laws and morally the reprehensible inaction of its lawmakers.

May every young person in our society be as selfless and as motivated as the walkers on the Walk of Dreams to undertake something as monumental as a 1,500-walk in order to be noticed and be heard in their resolve to liberate those we’re oppressing.
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