Educating the Undocumented- Our Best Mistake

Post Independent Article: 12/1


I was recently informed that our government is making a mistake. Surprise, surprise.

This particular mistake, according to my source, is that our nation routinely gives away free public education to the children of undocumented immigrants — a huge drain on our already overburdened school system because these families “don’t pay taxes.”

First, to understand their argument better and spend a little time as devil’s advocate, I think it is important to have a clear picture of this devious, allegedly tax-dodging population. Define our terms and whatnot. The venerable heads illuminating this issue told me that without a legitimate Social Security number or work visa, immigrants who may have entered the country illegally are not paying taxes. And sure, that makes sense in theory, but according to the American Immigration Council, even undocumented immigrants paid in more than $20 billion to Social Security between 1990 and 1998 — money they will never be able to touch. So I assume that the argument must refer to a much more specific population than just “undocumented immigrants.”

We can further narrow our discussion by excluding all the families who buy gas, food, clothing or Starbucks, as they will be paying sales tax at the local and state level with every purchase.

And now the picture starts to become clearer. They can’t own land without paying property taxes, nor rent, since the landlord would pay taxes on that income. We must, then, be talking about all those undocumented families who squat on public land in a hand-built shelter of dead-fall wood, grow all their own food and weave their clothes from the wool of their free-range alpaca herd. And then hitch-hike into town and sign their kids up for public school.

Now that we know with whom we’re dealing, we need to look more deeply into how this “mistake” has been allowed to perpetuate itself. It turns out that it is, in fact, deeply woven into the legal fabric of our country. Supreme Court Case Plyler v. Doe, 457 U.S. 202 (1982), as well as the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 are legal precedents working together (or should I say conspiring?) to allow all children, regardless of parental immigration status or primary language, equal access to the learning that occurs within the walls of our nation’s public schools.

The individuals who brought this issue to my attention in the first place must be relieved to learn this because they were quite concerned that most of the “problem” stemmed from some blunder of the current administration, not actions more than 50 years ago.

But back to our non-taxpaying, off-the-grid living, free-range alpaca-farming family. Never paid a damn cent in taxes, their kids show up every day from kindergarten on, draining an already-depleted system. Throughout it all, they have the opportunity to learn everything that their peers with more fiscally traditional parents do and eventually graduate with a diploma that is even printed on the same kind of paper. Twelve years of duty-free education. Could be concerning to some, I suppose.

Perhaps, however, my sources were more worried about the long-term effects of this ill-gotten education? These students go out into the world and have a better life because of the opportunities opened to them through their schooling. Approximately 65,000 children of undocumented parents graduate from high school every year, and who knows, a few of them may actually live taxless lives entirely off the grid. Either way, some of these graduates go on to pursue higher education, most without the benefit of federal grants and scholarship opportunities.

Some stay in their community serving as role models for others day to day. Still more have done heinous things like start their own businesses and improve our local economy. Even those students who choose to take their knowledge out into the world might actually have a positive effect on our country with the increasing globalization of our economy by stabilizing some other community.

Perhaps my source’s real concern is that more and more people will get word of this academic loophole and may try to improve the lives of their children by moving here. That means even more people who believe in hard work and sacrifice for the next generation would be insinuating themselves into our community. And who needs that drama?

So there it is. America’s mistake. We are sending youth out into the world educated! For free (sort of). All eight of those tax-dodging parents are sitting back in hand-hewn rockers wrapped in not-quite-llama-wool parkas having a good laugh at our expense, no doubt.

But this is not our first “mistake” as a nation. Nor will it be our last. So if you are still quite certain that offering free education to the youth of America regardless of race, religion or documentation is, in fact, a mistake, perhaps you will at least admit it is the best mistake our country has ever made.

For further (non-tongue-in-cheek) information about our undocumented youth and the role they play in our nation’s future, or to answer questions about the basis for the legality of current public education policies, please reference a recent pamphlet provided by the U.S. Department of Education by visiting

Lindsay DeFrates lives and teaches in Carbondale. She writes and rafts, grades and goes down slides, sometimes not in that order. Her column, making its debut today, will appear the first Tuesday of every month.

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