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Trump’s Attack on DACA Is an Attack on Public Education

Democratic education and immigrant rights are inseparable.

Immigrants and supporters rally and march in opposition to the Trump order to end DACA, on September 5, 2017, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo: David McNew / Getty Images)

“Strange things are happening in this land. Things that are truly alien to traditions and threaten the very existence of those cherished traditions.” — Luisa Moreno, 1940

The revocation of DACA is a direct attack on immigrant communities, threatening the education and livelihoods of 800,000 young people who now face the real possibility of deportation. The termination of DACA is also an assault on public higher education. It targets the ability of many students to be on college campuses, thereby degrading the possibilities for robust civic engagement in classrooms across the nation, from Arizona to Arkansas.

Responding to the fluorescence of an immigrant rights movement that articulates the dreams of generations of immigrants to claim a home in this place they already inhabit, the 2012 creation of DACA was a political compromise in face of the longstanding congressional impasse — since 1996 — on immigration policy. While it fell far short of the vision articulated by immigrant rights advocates, DACA allows young immigrants to work, drive legally and attend school.

After DACA was implemented, Dreamers and other immigrant rights advocates worked to advance similar protections for others: paths to citizenship, driver’s licenses, workers’ rights. Like generations of immigrants before them, they seek a place to work and create their lives: “protection, dignity and respect,” to quote Movimiento COSECHA, an immigrant rights organization.

As Guatemalan American Luisa Moreno pointed out before her deportation in 1954, immigrant dreams are American dreams. A key component of these dreams, and therefore a key battlefield, is the right of access to public higher education. Broad access to higher education was an important provision of the GI Bill, or Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, providing education and the potential for upward mobility to a generation of veterans, and making a university education an achievable goal for working and middle-class people. Successive GI Bills have provided higher education to veterans.

Higher education has been key to the success of generations of immigrants in the United States. Beyond professional training, public universities are places for collective inquiry and creative engagement. They are spaces where young people learn about the world and imagine their place in it: places to dream of a better future for us all. As Christopher Newfield argues in Unmaking the Public University: The Forty-Year Assault on the Middle Class, democratic access to the crucial work of learning and dreaming declines as public funding for higher education diminishes and tuition increases.

Articulated in 1894, the landmark Wisconsin Idea proclaimed that the work of the public university is a positive good, benefiting everyone in the state. It emphasized the importance of the intellectual “sifting and winnowing” of ideas that takes place at the public university, and proclaimed that the “boundaries of the university” should stop only at the boundaries of the state. The text of the Wisconsin Idea makes no mention of the legal status of those within these boundaries.

The Wisconsin Idea was articulated long before crossing the border without papers became a misdemeanor. But its expansive vision of public education makes it safe to assume that it can be taken to include denizens such as the undocumented children of dairy workers who currently make that industry viable. These students are central to the “sifting and winnowing” of ideas that takes place at our universities and makes democracy possible.

DACA benefits our public universities. The program allows undocumented students to participate in the democratic life of the university, engaging in discussion and debate. Paying in-state tuition, DACA students increase university enrollments and add to campus revenues. Diverse classrooms are places where all students participate in the democratic labor of learning. The revocation of DACA undermines the Wisconsin Idea and public education in general. It is part of a concerted attack on the very democratic process enshrined in the Wisconsin Idea.

Since the election last November, students and educators around the country have created a #sanctuary campus movement. Drawing inspiration from the Dream Movement and the New Sanctuary Movement, a component of the immigrant rights movement that offers legal and practical support to those confronting deportation, advocates for sanctuary campus seek legal and administrative protections and support for undocumented students, as well as Muslim students, LGBTQ students, students of color and others who have become increasingly vulnerable in an era of immigration bans and right-wing terror.

Many universities and colleges have passed a wide range of sanctuary resolutions.

In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where I live, the public school district passed a “safe haven” resolution in March, declaring that it would do everything possible to shelter students and their families from detention and deportation. In concert with colleagues around the nation, faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee passed a Sanctuary Campus resolution.

Given the criminalization of the very term “sanctuary” in the current regime, the legal status of such sanctuary provisions remains unclear. But the Sanctuary Campus movement apprehends the significance of access to public education and the connection between democratic education and immigrant rights. With the revocation of DACA, the struggle to make our public institutions democratic and open to all will move to the next level.

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