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As media erase term 'immigrant,' Texas school district says 'undocumented' no better than 'illegal'

Public records request shows Austin-area district teaches high schoolers that DACA "resisted systems of oppression" and stronger immigration laws oppress Mexicans. Merriam-Webster conflates migrant and immigrant.

Published: March 13, 2024 11:00pm

Updated: March 13, 2024 11:25pm

Sonia Sotomayor debuted the term "undocumented" in the Supreme Court to describe illegal immigrants in her first opinion as a justice. 

The Associated Press and USA Today ditched "illegal" less than four years later. The Washington Post and The New York Times resisted until at least 2017 but recently used "undocumented" when sources called immigrants "illegal," including President Biden himself.

Now the purportedly value-neutral "undocumented" is getting side-eye from some advocates for laissez-faire immigration policy – and not because it doesn't apply to border crossers with work papers.

The Round Rock Independent School District in Texas offers a high school elective course, "Advanced Ethnic Studies: Mexican American Studies," that tells students to be careful with both "illegal" and "undocumented," a public records request by advocacy group Parents Defending Education reveals.

Ethnic studies is a flashpoint in many school districts and especially in California, which mandates that public high schools offer such courses by 2025 and require one for graduation by 2029. Documented lessons include racially segregated playdates at an elementary school and prayers to Aztec and Yoruba gods in the state model curriculum itself.

The terms illegal and undocumented refer to "individuals who have entered or are residing in a country without proper legal authorization" but "can carry negative connotations and may perpetuate stereotypes," says the Round Rock "Analyzing Identity Nomenclature" lesson.

"It is important to approach these terms with sensitivity and recognize the complexity of immigration issues," the lesson says.

Yet it uncritically includes both in a list of terms that "help us recognize the diverse backgrounds of individuals," and various materials use "undocumented" without judgment. One touts the Texas progressive advocacy group Jolt Action, whose mission includes mobilizing voters against the "criminalization of undocumented immigrants."

Further confusing high schoolers, the nomenclature lesson also uses the once-discouraged term "American Indian" even while defining it as "indigenous peoples of the United States." 

The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian claims the "consensus" favors using "specific tribal name" when possible but that "American Indian" is preferable to "Native American," which was long considered the politically correct replacement for the former.

Even "immigrant" is disappearing from political discussion of the unprecedented number of foreigners streaming across the southern U.S. border, including more than 20,000 Chinese nationals apprehended in the San Diego Sector alone since Oct. 1, according to U.S. Border Patrol.

Illustrating the top-down redefinition of settled terms to shape public opinion on contentious issues, news coverage routinely refers to the illegal crossers as "migrants," conflating them with temporary authorized workers such as seasonal farm hands.

The venerable Merriam-Webster dictionary furthered the conflation in the past year by adding a third meaning to the listing for "migrant" that simply points to the first meaning of "immigrant," which is "a person who comes to a country to take up permanent residence." 

That definition appeared sometime between April 5, 2023 and Jan. 11, 2024, according to consecutive archives of the page that list the most recent updates.

PDE posted screenshots of some Round Rock materials this week and gave Just the News several documents, including a "Social Identity Wheel" that distinguishes "sex" from "gender," taken from a University of Michigan "inclusive teaching initiative."

While the materials with dates mostly refer to the 2021-2022 school year – and one, to the 2025-2026 school year – PDE pointed Just the News to the course's appearance in this year's course catalog (page 78) as well as next year's catalog (page 65).

A unit called "Systems and Powers of Oppression" lists "strengthened immigration laws" since 1975 as one example of oppression against Mexicans seeking to cross legally. The example is also included in a teacher training slide.

A page of "Famous Mexican American Quotes" emphasizes political radicals. One, by the poet and novelist Luis Urrea, reads: "Illegal Alien, adj./n. A term by which An invading colonial force Vilifies Indigenous cultures By identifying them as An invading colonial force."

The "Resistance and Liberation" unit map says students will learn about the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which a federal court declared illegal in 2021, and "Texas Dreamers [sic] Act" – events that "resisted systems of oppression against Mexican Americans." It's one of the few specific lines among 23 mentions of "systems of oppression."

A presentation from "Ethnic Studies Cohort 2021-2022 Meeting #1" includes developing the "ability to recognize and analyze systems of inequality and the commitment to take action against these systems," and identifying "race esteem."

It recommends external resources such as the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance, rebranded "Learning for Justice" in 2021, and "Creating Classrooms for Equity and Social Justice." which says instruction must be "anti-racist" and children made activists through "a rainbow of resistance."

They should learn "how children’s literature and textbooks tend to value the lives of Great White Men over all others," and that "[i]mplicit in many traditional accounts of history is the notion that children should disregard the lives of women, working people, and especially people of color."

The presentation apparently encouraged instructors to teach students songs such as "Strange Fruit," about the lynching of African-Americans.

The district didn't respond to a request for its response to PDE's characterization of the documents it turned over.

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