Steve Volk, September 11, 2017
When I was growing up our social studies teachers firmly inscribed a line between “history” and the “prehistoric.” The prehistoric, we were instructed, was the time of dinosaurs and woolly mammoths, saber tooth tigers and “Indians.” (Unprepared or unwilling to teach about one of the numerous Native American cultures that inhabited California before the arrival of Europeans, my Los Angelino classmates and I learned about a fictional indigenous tribe, a sort of cultural composite that mashed together north and south. No need to worry our elementary school brains over the differences between Chumash and Payómkawichum.) The dividing line between “history” and “prehistory” was not animal vs. human, but those who inscribed their past in a written form and those who were “pre-literate,” another troubled term of the time. Prehistory was the time of the people who didn’t write. In short, we were taught to distinguish between those with “papers” and, well, the undocumented.
Eric Wolf, a path-setting anthropologist, was one of the first to challenge my California-befuddled brain in his 1982 monograph, Europe and the People Without History (University of California), proposing that people without formal writing systems were not by any means without history, although waves of European colonization had rendered them prehistorical.
When I went on to study history in college, and then made the decision to become a historian, my desire, part and parcel of the rebellious 1960s, was to inhabit an academic discipline that would reveal the history of those who hadn’t written their own in the form of monographs or journal articles. My first efforts, exploring the history of the Bolivian tin miners union, brought me to the archives and in contact with the octogenarian founders of the first Bolivian sindicatos. In my romanticized imagination, I would give voice to the voiceless, documents to the undocumented. Further study clarified that, while doing nothing of the kind, I was at least part of a larger historical process that searched the archive for traces of those who previous generations of historians had ignored.
As a teacher of history, my colleagues and I challenged students to “read between the lines,” or “listen to the silences” when studying a past that seemed quite determined to ignore the vast numbers of people who had inhabited the earth. Silence itself could, perhaps, reveal a hidden documentation when asked the right questions. If we couldn’t provide a voice to the voiceless, we could attempt to read the shadows and listen for the murmurs as a means of crafting a history of the “prehistoric.” This was not an act of magic, nor really of imagination: we just became attentive to spaces we had previously overlooked. If the pre-conquest history of the Nahua and Zapotec was largely written by the Spanish conquerors of Mexico, we could still read the complexities of a colonial history inscribed in the maps Spanish administrators ordered their indigenous artisans to draw, or in the court records that charged them with a variety of misbehaviors and misdemeanors. The documentation that makes up a history comes in many forms, but only if we value the people who have lived it. To render a people “undocumented” is to endeavor to remove their history.
DACA and Documentation
I have been thinking a lot about documents, documentation, and history as the Trump Administration first threatened, and then, disgracefully, sent out Attorney General Jeff Sessions to rescind the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program on September 5. DACA was created by President Obama in June 2012 to provide modest but important protections for some young people who had been rendered invisible because they lacked documentation. When it was announced, DACA won the support of nearly 2/3rds of the U.S. population according to a Pew Research Center report. Once approved for the program, DACA recipients would (generally) be protected from deportation, could work legally, and obtain a driver’s license. To qualify, DACA applicants had to have entered the United States before 2007, be younger than 16 when they arrived and not older than 31 when the program began. They were required to maintain a virtually spotless criminal record, and needed to be enrolled in high school or have a high school diploma or the equivalent.
One key to the program is that they had to apply, which meant giving the government information that could easily put them at risk: fingerprints, addresses, biometric information. They had to make themselves even more vulnerable to a government that had betrayed them so often in the past and now said, “trust us.” Of an estimated 1.3-1.7 million individuals eligible for DACA, close to 800,000 ultimately applied.
To be clear, DACA status didn’t provide them with a “path toward citizenship” or permanent residence in the United States; it gave them a temporary way to come out of the shadows and at least momentarily put aside some fears, for they still faced the possibility that their parents could be deported. And they had to reapply every two years.
It is not easy to research this undocumented group of young people, but according to study by Tom Wong of UC San Diego, DACA recipients were, on average, 6½ when they arrived in the U.S. In other words, for a great number of these individuals, the only life they have known is in the United States. While we don’t know how many DACA recipients are undergraduates, the University of California system, for example, has approximately 4,000 undocumented students, a substantial number of whom have DACA status. Harvard enrolls perhaps 65. In all, an estimated 10,000 undocumented immigrants graduate from college each year.
Acts of Erasure
There are many ways to analyze Trump’s demented decision to terminate DACA: as yet another indication of his determination to re-impose the white, patriarchal, straight, Christian America of his Queens upbringing in the 1950s, the New York borough represented so subversively by Archie Bunker, as Jelani Cobb recently observed; as another piece of candy offered to his political base equally rattled by its own ethnic anxieties; or as a further measure of his determination to break anything that President Obama built. Whatever else this decision shows, it is more evidence that the man is devoid of empathy. He will not or cannot allow himself to imagine the life of an 18-year old brought from Honduras as a child, who, with much effort, became a young woman who danced with joy at her high school prom, proudly joined the military to serve “her country,” and now is encouraged to “self-deport” lest she find herself with a one-way ticket to a country whose language she no longer speaks, a town she doesn’t remember, and a family that no longer lives there. For Trump and his anti-immigrant backers (a faction which has been active since the nation was founded but which modifies its targets over time), she lacks documents and therefore neither her past nor her future is of concern. She does not exist in history. She has been rendered prehistoric.
Frankly, I’m not interested in understanding why this man does what he does; my concern is for those who will suffer from his actions. There is no time in this short essay to explore the historically sour welcome given migrants, both “sanctioned and subjugated,” into this country. Nor can I explore the virtual lack of citizenship that has been the reality for African Americans living here. But some brief background is needed to understand, in particular, the existence of millions of migrants from Mexico and Central America.
For more than a century, the United States has depended on the labor of those coming from south of the border. They came when their toil was needed, and returned home when conditions turned. A purposefully porous southern border encouraged both an inflow of low-cost labor to U.S. farms, mines, and other industries, and the opportunity of a return home to their natal communities.
But in the 1990s a trap door fell. As the U.S. beefed up its border enforcement in response to conservative political pressure, those workers who had previously moved back and forth across the border no longer could risk leaving the United States to return to what most still considered their homes. Further, as Washington began toughening its immigration laws in response to the same pressures, those who were already here found that they had no way to legalize their status (or that of their non-U.S. born children) if they stayed, and virtually no legal way to return to the States if they left. So while the decision to terminate DACA is particularly cruel for the hundreds of thousands of young people who have known no other life than what they have experienced in this country, U.S. immigration laws are no less punishing for the millions who have come here to pick our crops, tend our gardens, and care for our children, who, in short, have taken jobs that others don’t want.
Trump’s decision to rescind DACA is above all an act of erasure, an attempt to remove those without documents from “our” history. Iowa Representative Steve King was quite explicit about this. DACA recipients, he argued, should either self-deport or “live in the shadows,” where they can, presumably, provide cheap labor for Iowa’s meat packing firms. The question, though, is what can we do to protect the tens of thousands of DACA (and non-DACA) students who attend our classes and graduate from our universities?
DACA and Higher Education
Institutions of higher education and their associations have been uniform in their condemnation of Trump’s actions. Shortly after Trump’s election, more than 600 college and university presidents, including Oberlin’s president Krislov, signed a statement urging continued support for DACA. This week, Carmen Ambar, Oberlin’s newly installed president, circulated a letter to the campus linking the institution’s support for DACA to its historic mission of inclusion: “Today,” she wrote, “we are called to continue that legacy as we fight for the rights of young, undocumented individuals who have benefited from [DACA].” Going a step further, on September 8, the University of California filed suit in federal court against the Trump administration for unconstitutionally violating the rights of the university and its students by rescinding DACA on “nothing more than unreasoned executive whim.”
Colleges and universities across the country have taken steps to protect the privacy of student records, provide DACA students with legal aid and, in some cases, financial support, establish offices to provide targeted support and counseling, enroll students without regard for their immigration status, insure that campus security and police forces do not make inquiries regarding any student’s legal status, advocate in the name of their institutions for new laws to protect DACA recipients and all undocumented students, and lobby their legislators to pass legislation to reform an immigration system that has grown increasingly punitive and threatens to spill back into a racially exclusionary system.
But what do we, teachers of these threatened students, teachers of all students in our classroom, do? The issue, as Lynn Pasquerella, the president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities recently noted, is not a partisan one: “We do have values to serve, and these are not partisan values.” For obvious reasons, we are unlikely to know which students in our classes are DACA students or who lacks legal status. This is all the more reason to make known to all our students that we are part of an educational community that is formed by the values of equity and inclusion, that all our students are equal members of that community regardless of any aspect of their identity or status, that all are deserving of a quality education, and that we will work with them to insure they receive it. It is also important to indicate again, that if any student is in need of special consideration and feels unable to communicate that need directly to us, they should work with the Dean of Students’ office, which can bring the matter to our attention.
One of the consequences for our DACA and undocumented students who have been forced to live a life of intense vulnerability is that we do not know, we cannot know, their histories; we do not know, we cannot know, the effort they must put in just to keep up with our classes, let alone excel in them. Preparing for an exam or writing a 10-page paper is hard enough given the complexity of our young students’ lives. Concentrating on those tasks when you don’t know if your mother will be put on a plane and sent to El Salvador when she reports to her next meeting with ICE agents, planning what courses to take for a future which may crumble at any minute, requires more focus and effort than most of us can muster. And yet, we do not know, cannot know, about it because their vulnerabilities have rendered them silent.
And this is where we come in. We must be clear that in our classrooms and in our communities, our students will not be made voiceless; they will not be made invisible; they will not be stripped of their past and turned “prehistoric” because it matters to us, deeply. If our students can’t speak up, we need to become better listeners who can be aware of the silences. If our students can’t ask for our support, we need to offer it without their asking. DACA and the undocumented have a home in our colleges and universities, and we need to make sure that they know it.