DACA in the History Classroom

Stephen Dove is an Assistant Professor of History here at Centre College where he teaches Latin American history.  Thanks for sharing your classroom with us, Stephen!

Korean pianists do not normally play a prominent role in my Latin American history courses, but this week that changed.

I am the type of professor who views the syllabus more as a flexible goal than a rigid rule. We mostly stick to the schedule, but when my students ask questions about current events, I often hit the pause button on planned content and dedicate class time to unplanned discussion. On Tuesday we had one of these days in my Modern Latin America course when President Trump rescinded the 2012 executive order authorizing DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). At its core, this decision means that more than 700,000 young adults who came to the United States as undocumented children in the 1990s and 2000s will gradually lose the right to be legally present in the country. Most of these people were born in Mexico or Central America, hence its relevance to our course.

However, the story of DACA is not just about Latin American immigration, nor is it just about politics. It is more complicated, and history provides great tools for exploring that complexity and answering questions about relevance. I often remind my students (and myself) that history does not normally offer tidy solutions to problems. In this case, history is not going to give us a definite answer about how to craft the best immigration policy for undocumented immigrants who have always known the United States as home. However, what history will do is give us perspective on the complex causes and effects underlying this story, and that historical perspective will help us address this issue with empathy and intelligence. And that is where the Korean pianist became relevant to my Modern Latin America course.

One of the interesting things about DACA is that, like most immigration discussions in the United States, public discourse has focused on people from Latin America. The story is more complicated though. President Obama created DACA in 2012 after Congress had failed for at least the eighth time to pass legislation called the DREAM Act, which would have granted legal status to people who arrived in the U.S. as undocumented children. The first version of the DREAM Act came up for a vote in 2001 in part because of an undocumented Korean immigrant named Tereza Lee, who moved to the United States in 1985 as a two-year-old when her parents illegally overstayed their tourist visas. To add more complexity to the story, Lee was not actually born in South Korea. She was born in Brazil, the country her parents fled to in the aftermath of the Korean War. Thus, the Lee family story also intersects with the history of US foreign policy in Asia. This reality parallels the stories of many undocumented Latin American immigrants who fled from civil wars, drug violence, or economic crises in their home countries that were partially (though not entirely) the result of U.S. policy.

By 2001, Lee was a budding pianist who worried about attending college to study music because of her undocumented status. A teacher brought her case to Democratic Senator Dick Durbin who partnered with Republican Senator Orin Hatch to write the original DREAM Act. The legislation has had bipartisan support for sixteen years, but members of both parties have also opposed it. There is not enough space in a short blog post to explain why this happened each time, but the bottom line is that political considerations have always depended on context; and every time the DREAM Act comes up for a vote, the political contexts change.

So what does this mean in a classroom in Kentucky? That was the underlying question at hand from my students this week. If we base our analysis of DACA on headlines, then this is a story about politicians in Washington, DC and a faceless group of 700,000 people. However, if we examine the histories behind DACA, we find that the story is about much more. It is about people whose individual stories are tied up in a complex web of foreign policy, migration, economics, and personal motivation. Most of the students in my class personally know someone impacted by DACA. Historicizing the national conversations about DACA is a good reminder that the complex individuals we know are not exceptions in the bigger story of DACA. Like the Korean-Brazilian-American pianist, that complexity is the norm, and history reminds us that such complexity should influence our public conversations about this and other current events.

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