Should the Children of Undocumented Immigrants Pay More to Go to College?

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Mr. Yannielli has studied history at Wesleyan and Oxford Universities and is now a graduate student in the Department of History at Yale. His current research focuses on grassroots antislavery activism, utopianism, and the politics of violence in antebellum America.

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On June 26, 2007, Connecticut Governor M. Jodi Rell vetoed a controversial bill that would have allowed the children of undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public colleges. As it is now, aspiring students without citizenship papers must pay the full out-of-state tuition, a difference of about $14,000 per year. Supporters of the bill argue that this effectively denies a higher education to hundreds of young people across the state. Recent polls show that residents support the bill by about 53 to 41 percent. Opponents emphasize that such families are here illegally and should not be entitled to state resources. According to Governor Rell, the proposal would “encourage others to come to Connecticut in violation of federal immigration law.” Besides, she argues, the state cannot interfere with the larger debates going on in Washington on this sensitive issue. It should “wait for resolution at the federal level.”

Meanwhile, the city of New Haven, Connecticut, has recently passed an ordinance establishing a municipal ID card that can be used by undocumented immigrants to access public services and safely store their money. It has been hailed as a break-through in public safety because many immigrants are forced to carry around large wads of cash and are easy targets for violent crime. Advocates also point to the public health benefits, as families that were once fearful of entering a clinic can now present a legitimate form of documentation and receive proper medical care. The card also provides access to the public library and city parking. Two days after the program was approved, federal agents raided Fair Haven, the city’s predominately Latino neighborhood, arresting 32 men and women as illegal aliens. The mayor and local activists have accused the government of deliberate retaliation against their pro-immigrant polices.

Academics have shown little interest in this peculiar story from a small corner of New England – and it has received only sporadic coverage in the national press. But anyone even remotely familiar with Connecticut history could not help slapping their hand against their forehead. In the early 1830s, as more and more free black men and women began appearing in the state, Connecticut was host to a series of clashes over the meaning of democracy that shook the new nation to its very core. Vigilante mobs, arson, intimidation, and sophisticated arguments were used to deny equal access to education for former slaves and their children. Blacks were not citizens, proclaimed the media and the politicians. Treating them as such would only encourage more to flood into the state! And besides, went the typical refrain, the whole slavery problem was a federal matter. History repeats itself, or so the old saying goes. First as tragedy. Then as farce.

In the fall of 1831, a grassroots coalition of black and white activists presented their plans for an experimental “Negro College,” the first of its kind in the Americas, to the city of New Haven. The previous summer had seen a grassroots explosion of protest against colonization – the popular plan to export all freed blacks to Africa. Black communities throughout the Northeast helped galvanize a new abolitionist movement that sought immediate emancipation, full racial equality, and even reparations for former slaves. The “college for our colored youth” was meant to unite African Americans from all corners of the diaspora to learn from each other and to lead their brethren in the struggles to come. Unlike other missionary schools, the students would not be required to leave the country, now proudly claimed as their “native land.”

At the same time, the recent – and extremely bloody – Nat Turner rebellion in southeastern Virginia had instilled a deep fear throughout most of white America. In Connecticut, newly mobilized blacks also appeared especially menacing to the status quo. “No sir,” declared one New Haven man, “it is absolutely impossible to send the light of literature and science among the colored population of our country, without kindling the torch of the incendiary, and unsheathing the sword of rebellion and insurrection.” Instead, he suggested, the whole lot should be sent to Africa. “Let the institutions of religion, and of learning, and a free government be founded there.”

The college was denounced by the power elite of New Haven and Yale and voted down by a margin of 700 to 4 at a public referendum. Its educational mission would be “destructive of the best interests of the city” and an “unwarrantable and dangerous interference with the concerns of other states,” declared the opposition. “Gentlemen of property and standing” led posses into black ghettos to instill fear and reinforce white supremacy. White abolitionists were shocked. “It has come like hail from a sunny sky,” exclaimed William Lloyd Garrison.

But black activists could see the storm clouds gathering. Less than a year later, Charles B. Ray, a young black man, applied and was accepted to the newly-opened Wesleyan University in nearby Middletown. Students threatened to return home and drafted a resolution to the board of trustees demanding that he be “removed” from the institution immediately. Ray was pressured into resigning in late 1832, after only a few months at the school. He would never receive a college degree.

Another black youth, this time a Middletown native, was brave enough to take part in some advanced tutorials at the school the following year. Amos Beman was a third generation descendent of a Revolutionary War hero and refused to let others put a cap on his ambitions. “Why should we leave this land, so dearly bought by the blood, groans and tears of our fathers?” he and other local activists had cried in 1831. “Truly this is our home, here let us live and here let us die.” Beman was harassed and scorned by students and faculty alike, and was finally forced to flee Middletown after receiving a particularly vivid death threat.

The next year, Prudence Crandall, abolition sympathizer and headmistress of a “School for Colored Girls,” was also forced to leave her home in the northeast corner of the state. She had been denounced and arrested, her students harassed, and her house vandalized and set ablaze. Local businesses refused to help her. Neighbors began dumping feces in the family well. And the Connecticut Legistlature passed a special law forbidding the teaching of out-of-state blacks (which included most of Crandall’s students). “That nigger school,” announced prosecuting attorney Andrew T. Judson, “shall never be allowed in Canterbury, nor in any town of this state.” The so-called “Black Law” sparked a furious legal battle and attracted national attention. Writing many years later, local activist Samuel J. May compared the assault on this tiny schoolhouse to the siege of “the immortal Fort Sumter.” By the fall of 1834, however, Prudence Crandall had finally raised the white flag.

The people of Canterbury were exuberant. They convened a special town meeting, and placed a few short statements on the record for posterity. Abolitionism, the townspeople observed, had “erected [a] standard of rebellion upon our soil.” They had been “assailed” and “oppressed” by this seditious movement, and rejoiced that they were now finally safe, “protected,” from its insidious designs. It was a victory not only for Connecticut, but also for white privilege everywhere. “Resolved, That the Government of the United States, the Nation with all its institutions, of right belong to the white men who now possess them, they were purchased by the valor and blood of their Fathers, and must never be surrendered to any other nation or race of men.”

These were the opening salvos in an epic war that raged across the cultural and political landscape of the North for decades. And no tactic was too low. When abolitionists resurrected the old revolutionary slogan “no taxation without representation” to argue that African Americans paid their fair share even though they were not officially considered citizens, the state actually attempted to exempt all blacks from local taxes. Black schools remained de-facto segregated and underfunded until well into the twentieth century (and some argue that this legacy continues even today).

“There is one sin that slavery committed against me, which I never can forgive,” wrote Hartford activist James W.C. Pennington in 1849. “It robbed me of my education.” Pennington had defied all odds to escape from slavery and had painstakingly tutored himself while listening in on classes at the Yale Divinity School. He became a prolific activist, one of the first to publicly challenge segregationist polices in the North, and was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Heidelberg. But he still felt that the early limits placed on his education had caused irreparable damage. “It cost me two years' hard labour, after I fled, to unshackle my mind,” wrote Pennington. “I am grievously overwhelmed with a sense of my deficiency.”

Full and equal access to education has been one of the most dramatic sites of struggle in American history for over two hundred years. It is also one of the most important. Where would we be today if some early slaves had not risked their lives and secretly taught themselves to read and write? What if the labor movement or the civil rights movement had never taught their members about the hidden history of racism and oppression in America? What if ordinary women had never stood up and challenged conventional wisdom about their capacity to learn, debate, and participate in democracy? Education is central to who we are as human beings. Great movements that change the face of the world have always and will always begin at the grassroots, when two or more people get together and begin to educate each other about their condition. Surprisingly, however, historians have rarely grappled with the broader contexts of the battle for education in America and modern reformers are seldom aware of the long and complex history of their movement.

Much has changed over the past two hundred years. Even in Connecticut, the Black Laws passed in the wake of the Crandall affair were repealed within a decade thanks to the support of a massive grassroots campaign. Local whites became more sympathetic toward black fugitives during the 1850s as the South showed itself to be increasingly belligerent and repressive. The Underground Railroad flourished. Today it would be difficult indeed to publish some of the more viciously racist diatribes that appeared in the 1830s or to organize a white supremacist posse. New Haven’s ID program has set a new standard. The high level of support for the tuition bill in the Connecticut State Legislature is unprecedented. And ten other states, including Texas, Nebraska, Oklahoma and Kansas, have already passed similar legislation.

Still, the great battles for educational democracy are far from settled, and old anxieties tend to keep reappearing in different forms. In this way, the historical similarities between the slavery crisis and the immigration crisis can be deeply instructive. What will become of the hundreds of young men and women who have been cut off from college by Governor Rell’s veto? Like the first generations of free blacks, they have been thrust into a situation where they are neither fully American nor fully alien. They live and work here, and yet they are denied the real benefits of citizenship. How will their education (whether inside the classroom or in the harsh world of power politics) affect the future of our democracy?

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