America is embroiled in an immigration debate that goes far beyond President Barack Obama’s executive order on undocumented immigrants. It goes to the heart of who “we” are. And it’s roiling communities across the nation.
In early November, school officials in Orinda, Calif., hired a private detective to determine whether a 7-year-old Latina named Vivian — whose single mother works as a live-in nanny for a family in Orinda — “resides” in the district and should therefore be allowed to attend the elementary school that she has already been attending there.
On the basis of that investigation, they determined that Vivian’s legal residence is her grandmother’s home in Bay Point, Calif. They gave the 7-year-old until Dec. 5 to leave her Orinda school.
Never mind that Vivian and her mother live during the workweek at the Orinda home where Vivian’s mother is a nanny, that Vivian has her own bedroom in that home with her clothing and toys and even her own bathroom, that she and her mother stock their own shelves in the refrigerator and kitchen cupboard of that Orinda home, or that Vivian attends church with her mother in Orinda and takes gymnastics and youth theater classes at the Orinda community center.
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The point is that Vivian is Latina and poor, and Orinda is white, Anglo and wealthy. And Orinda vigilantly protects itself from encroachments by the large and growing poor Latino and Hispanic populations living beyond its borders.
Orinda’s schools are among the best in California — public schools that glean extra revenues from a local parcel tax (that required a two-thirds vote to pass) and parental contributions to the Educational Foundation of Orinda, which “suggests” donations of $600 per child.
Orinda doesn’t want to pay for any kids who don’t belong there. Harold Frieman, Orinda’s district attorney, says the district has to be “preserving the resources of the district for all the students.”
Orinda’s school district backed down last week and informed Vivian’s mother that the 7-year-old will not be disenrolled.
But the bigger story is this. Education is no longer just a gateway into the American middle class. Getting a better education than almost everyone else is the gateway into the American elite. That elite is now receiving almost all of the economy’s gains. So the stakes continue to rise for upscale parents who want to give their kids that better education.
The competition starts before kindergarten and is becoming more intense each year. After all, the Ivy League has only a limited number of places. Parents who can afford it are frantically seeking to get their children into highly regarded private schools. Or they’re moving into towns like Orinda, with excellent public schools.
Such schools are “public” in name only. Tuition payments are buried inside high home prices, extra taxes, parental donations and small armies of parental volunteers. These parents are intent on policing the boundaries lest a child whose parents haven’t paid the “tuition” reap the same advantages as their own children. Hell hath no fury like an upscale parent who thinks another kid is getting an unfair advantage by sneaking in under the fence.
The other part of this larger story is that a growing number of kids on the other side of the fence are Hispanic, Latino and African-American. Most babies born in California are now minorities. The rest of the nation isn’t far behind.
According to the 2010 census, Orinda is 82.4 percent white and 11.4 percent Asian. Only 4.6 percent of its inhabitants are Hispanic or Latino. All of its elementary schools get 10 points on the GreatSchools 10-point rating system.
Bay Point, where Vivian’s grandmother lives, is 41.4 percent white, 54.9 percent Hispanic or Latino, and 11.6 percent African-American. Bay Point’s elementary schools are rated 2 to 4 on GreatSchools’ 10-point scale.
Many of the people who live in places like Bay Point tend the gardens and care for the children of the people who live in places like Orinda.
But Orinda is intent on patrolling its border.
The nation’s attention is focused on the border separating the United States from Mexico, and on people who have crossed that border and taken up residence illegally. But the boundary separating white Anglo upscale school districts from the burgeoning nonwhite and non-Anglo populations in downscale communities is fast becoming a flashpoint inside America.
In both cases, the central question is: Who are “we”?
Robert Reich is chancellor’s professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and senior fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies.