Questioning national boundaries, mental boundaries

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What questions are off-limits as subjects for inquiry?  Are these limits different from school to school, from city to city and country to country?  What happens when we test the ground of off-limits questions?

I have been working on setting up a dialogue between my students and a class in St. Petersburg, Russia, exploring immigration policy and anti-immigrant attitudes in our respective countries.  Colleagues warned me that this topic might be too touchy for a Russian school to allow.

I knew that migrants from the former Soviet republics have been segregated and distrusted in Russia, and I got the impression that the discourse about the former Soviet republics is more political and theoretical than based in a consideration of the lives of actual migrants in the cities.  The questions I heard people in Russia discussing were how to limit the problems migrants brought into the cities — drugs, employment – not who the migrants are, what their lives are like and the perspective they offer to the country.

While the landscape is different in the U.S., especially in Chicago where immigrant communities are not as bounded and blamed as in St. Petersburg, nevertheless the topic of immigration leads straight into very uncomfortable questions.  For my students this year, I’m guessing what may get uncomfortable is the basic question of political analysis: Cui Bono — Who Benefits?

That’s the uncomfortable question for me, anyhow.   I see a lot of immigrants going through detention and deportation.  Who is benefiting from this cataclysm in hundreds of thousands of lives?

An immigration lawyer came to talk to my students about immigration policy in the U.S.  The harsh immigration laws that passed in Arizona, he explained, are written by ALEC, which is hired by the Correctional Corporations of America to find legislative mechanisms for increasing the population in their for-profit prisons.  This notion appalls me; I really don’t want to think that my government is operating this way, or that whole corporations of human beings would be so cynical and indifferent to human lives.

Though it’s uncomfortable, I feel strongly that it’s the touchy topics that most urgently call for inquiry, dialogue, lots of thinking.

A Russian colleague has agreed to develop an immigration policy idea exchange between our students.  Her response to me was overflowing with cautiousness — I know that her sense of the mines in the field of inquiry will be crucial for us moving forward.

Already in our initial teacher-to-teacher exchange, I notice that when my colleague articulates her perception of the boundaries of our inquiry, she enables me to start seeing boundaries on my side that weren’t so apparent to me before.  When she indicates reluctance to question assumptions about migrants in Russia, I am able to search out the areas of reluctance in me, and think about what they mean.

I’ll be keeping track of this internal inquiry over the course of this exchange, as much as of the ideas, policies, and current events pertaining to immigration.  Once I see the boundaries, I can think about how far they can be crossed.

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