PBS Premiere: Aug. 27, 2002Check the broadcast schedule »

How Enlightened Are We?

Many issues associated with a mobile lifestyle are highlighted in the film, Escuela. The film provides a unique perspective on the educational difficulties faced by children who are uprooted from their homes two or three times annually throughout their K-12 years. It illustrates, too, the emotional, psychological and physical hardships faced by migrant students and their families -- all of which make education a more elusive goal.

Mexican and Mexican-Americans make up the majority of the nation's migrant population in the United States. While the film does not address the issue of legal versus an "illegal" migrant population, it is well known, though not widely discussed, that many in the migrant stream are here without legal documents. (Middle-class America likes paying the lowest prices in the industrialized world for its agricultural products, thank you very much.)

Undocumented families are here because the agricultural industry, among others, has become dependent on them -- a dynamic created during World War II when there was a legitimate labor shortage. America's world-class agricultural systems have been built on the backs of people of Mexican descent, yet they remain a shadow population whose wages, living conditions and educational status remain far below that of most Americans.

Most states safeguard the right of all students to a K-12 education. Unfortunately, the safeguards end with high school.

This has created a dilemma for emerging scholars who were brought to the United States, some at infancy, by their parents. Their dilemma results from a combination of inane immigration policies and immigration officials who for decades, with a nod and wink from the U.S. Congress, have purposely not enforced immigration laws that could "control our borders." (*See link to Obledo article below).

Living under this cloud, even class valedictorians are effectively barred from post-secondary education because they are faced with out-of-state tuition or international fees if they want to attend U.S. colleges. They cannot qualify for federal financial aid (FFA), even though they fall within income guidelines for assistance. And unlike the welcome they receive when they and their parents apply to work in the agricultural fields, they cannot slip through tightly controlled access to FFA funds.

Fortunately efforts are underway in the U.S. Congress that would provide for legalization of undocumented students and would eliminate federal legislation that discourages states from providing in-state tuition or other education assistance to undocumented students. Last year H.R. 1918 was introduced in the House of Representatives. This year S. 1291 was introduced in the Senate by Senator Orrin Hatch.

Advocates, including school boards, governors, state school superintendents and community leaders are encouraging Congress to pass the bills. Opponents are also weighing in.

Just how enlightened is America?

Ricardo Sanchez is director of the Latino/a Educational Achievement Project based in Seattle, Wash. He is currently working on a video depicting farm worker health, safety and environmental issues. He can be reached at

* For more on this issue, see On the Bracero's Back, an opinion published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in January, 2000.