Everyday We Get More Insistent: Graceland University as a Sanctuary Campus

Juan Felipe Herrera, the reigning poet laureate of the United States (and the first of Hispanic descent), has made a career of locating, traversing, defying, and blurring borders — including those between Spanish/English, poetry/art/music, blue-collar/intellectual, Mexican/Indian/American. He was born in southern California to Mexican migrant farmers, and thus his very life originated with a literal and ever-precarious border crossing. Those stories continue to animate his politics and his verse.

Herrera’s 2011 “Everyday We Get More Illegal” is one such prescient border-crossing poem; it probes the strange human capacity to criminalize (i.e. to make illegitimate) the lives of other humans. While its title provokes, Herrera’s poem isn’t agitprop so much as a constellation of scenic images from the daily experiences of migrant workers. The opening lines pivot from the title’s political urgency, submitting to the cyclical indifference of agrarian calendars — “Yet the peach tree/still rises” — and animal survival, “birds eat it the sparrows fight.”

But the poem swiftly reminds us that, for the immigrant, these seemingly impartial routines of the everyday — background processes that nonetheless govern all organic life — are conflated with another sort of distant power: our nation’s perpetually-shifting legal codes, laws that can both “naturalize” and divest human beings of personhood:

laws pass laws with scientific walls
detention cells husband
with the son
the wife &
the daughter who
married a citizen
they stay behind broken slashed

The syntactical clutter of this stanza’s opening line performs the peculiar and arbitrary pace at which American juridical systems assign and reassign humanness. Their charters have constructed barriers throughout history under “scientific” guises of geography, race, and technological might. If we stumble to parse its grammar, just imagine how actual immigration laws work to obscure the fracturing of actual people’s lives — an everyday practice marked out by Herrera in the stanza’s progressively disintegrating lineation. “Scientific walls,” — coming soon in brick and mortar by pledge of the President-elect — enjambed and transformed into “detention cells,” introduce larger line-by-line gaps. It is the poetic performance of legalized family separation. One by one, father is torn from son, who’s torn from mother; while daughter, with her new American-soil-born clan, is alone permitted to remain. She’s a “permanent resident alien,” her children citizens jus soli; that’sof the soil,” a condition conceived — by certain legal definitions — as belated to American “culture.” The closing line tries to shore together linguistic remnants from the ruins of illegality. But, once more, language is confused. “Behind broken slashed” exist in an awkward succession sans punctuation. The emotional stages that “they,” the “illegal” immigrant family now torn asunder, endure defy easy signification — whether grammatical or psychological. Devastation can be figured only through a volatile syntactical borderland.

Full disclosure time. In an hour, I’ll be teaching this poem in a course titled “Poetry and Social Justice.” By design, everyday politics encroach upon our conversations quite frequently, since social realities help ground literary interpretation in the lives of our students. Today, though, Herrera’s work weighs more heavily on my mind than most. Its content is distressing and personal to classmates who identify as “immigrant,” “Chicano,’ “Latino/a,” “international,” or “foreign.” As an educator in a moment of rapidly growing racial resentment, — a movement not new, just rhetorically crystallized by the election of Donald Trump — I realize my duty to make and maintain space for social critique and for diverse voices and for meaningful dialogue. Social poetry like “Everyday We Get More Illegal” is an indispensable vehicle for the task.

As I’ll encourage today in my students, I’ve accepted Herrera’s invitation to empathy with the most vulnerable among us. As an instructor, that call is nothing less than a social duty; and eyeing the current political landscape, this empathy demands action. That’s why today I am joining with a group of faculty, students, staff, and community members to request that Graceland University identify itself as a “sanctuary campus” — a safe haven for undocumented and refugee students who could be facing serious political (and personal) threats in the near future. Uniting with a social movement growing on campuses across the United States, we refuse to cooperate with the mass criminalization of our non-citizen students, friends, and colleagues. It’s an urgent position to take given the draconian platform promises of President-elect Trump and the current history of deportation and detention already occurring in the United States.

To that end, I have authored this petition that, among other appeals, asks administration to unequivocally reaffirm our commitment to nondiscrimination, and to refuse compliance with immigration authorities regarding deportations or raids. By taking a firm ethical stand on these issues and committing ourselves to the well-being of our brothers and sister before any other dictum, Graceland will reaffirm its promises to embrace and promote diversity, opportunity and justice through practical and visionary action. Only then can we also begin to make good on our pledge to eradicate all forms of systemic racism and cultural exclusion as an institution. Above all, let it be said, this is the morally right way to proceed for any institution that takes its call to higher learning seriously.

Beyond providing the space and resources to critically engage with human histories, social issues, and big ideas, colleges had better be prepared, going forward, to defend themselves, i.e. if we are to maintain one of the few spaces left for honest and thoughtful critique in this increasingly privatized, sanitized, anti-intellectual climate. I’m a card-carrying purveyor of the liberal arts, of the humanities, of poetry. We, leaders at small liberal arts institutions like Graceland University, faithfully proselytize the importance of critical engagement with big human ideas: truth, love, spirituality, beauty, power, democracy. Unless we are willing to act, those claims are little more than fodder for college brochures.

The space Juan Felipe Herrera seeks in poetry, what he described as a place of “[m]any voices, many communities, many languages, many traditions and points of view,” we recreate on our best days in the college classroom. In declaring ourselves a sanctuary to the vulnerable, we follow his lead in doing “the most political thing we can do — to be brave about our lives and be willing to step into a wider neighborhood of lives, to be part of the polity, the city.” What more practical mission could one imagine for the liberal arts?

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