Advocacy & Activism, Education, Immigration

Small, Poor, Successful School Waits for Obama, in Vain

From NYTimes.com, William Yardley, 20 May 2011.

Students at Bridgeport High School listened to the news on May 10 that President Obama would not deliver their commencement address.

Students at Bridgeport High School listened to the news on May 10 that President Obama would not deliver their commencement address.

BRIDGEPORT, Wash. — President Obama stood near the Mexican border last week and challenged Republicans to join him in reforming federal immigration policy. Among the people he said were unfairly at risk under current laws: “bright, eager students.”

hat same day, five high school seniors gathered in the principal’s office of tiny Bridgeport High School here among the orchards that line the Columbia River. While Mr. Obama was flying to Texas, the five students, all children of Hispanic farm workers, were waiting to hear whether he would soon be addressing their graduating class. They were not just dreaming.

Bridgeport was one of three finalists in the White House’s 2011 Race to the Top High School Commencement Challenge, a contest that rewards improving schools with a graduation speech delivered by the president himself. Nearly all of the 37 students who graduate next month plan to go to college even as immigration issues have forced some of their parents back to Mexico.

“All that week, we were told he was talking about immigration, so we were like, maybe that’s a hint that he’s coming to our school,” said Nadia Gonzalez, one of the five seniors in the office that day.

Bridgeport High is small, remote and poor, with all but a handful of students qualifying for free lunches. But if it seemed a long shot to win, its students also knew their families represented an important constituency in the 2012 election. Perhaps, this time, politics would be on their side.

“Then all of a sudden it was like, ‘I’m going to Memphis,’ ” Ms. Gonzalez recalled.

Sure enough, the president went to Memphis on Monday, first visiting with victims of the nearby Mississippi River flooding, then delivering the commencement address at the school that was ultimately chosen, Booker T. Washington High School, which had raised its graduation rate to 82 percent last year from 55 percent in 2007.

A White House official said the decision, made by the president himself, was based solely on the terms of the Commencement Challenge. Yet here in Bridgeport, while there was genuine admiration for the students at Booker T. Washington, people also wondered whether the complicated politics of immigration had once again reached into the remote river towns here that have been remade by migrant workers who pick and pack much of America’s apples and cherries. And that those politics might not be working in Bridgeport’s favor, given the commentary that some residents had seen on the Internet.

“You wouldn’t believe the nasty stuff out there,” said Nancine Hawkins, who runs Nell’s Diner, a popular restaurant here that has been supportive of the high school, which is more than 90 percent Hispanic. “It was like, ‘Don’t send the president, send I.N.S.’ ” (Those initials stand for the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the former enforcement agency whose duties now are mostly handled by the Department of Homeland Security.)

Bridgeport, which has about 2,000 people, sits on the same arid bend of the Columbia River where the Obama administration conducted one of its largest so-called silent raids in 2009, in the neighboring town of Brewster. The federal authorities conducted an extensive immigration audit of Gebbers Farms, a huge fruit grower that employs the parents of some of the Bridgeport students (and some of the students themselves in the summer). More than 500 workers lost their jobs because of their documentation suggested that they were here illegally; many left town or the country, though they were not deported.

“They had to leave pretty fast,” Ms. Hawkins said. “We had our laundromat open 24 hours a day.”

Mario Camacho, a student advocate at Brewster High School, which routinely beats Bridgeport in athletic events but does not have its academic reputation, said Hispanic families in the area, in some ways, felt safer after the audits because of the nonconfrontational way they were conducted. But the notion that Mr. Obama would come to town so soon afterward was hard for him to fathom.

“I knew from Day 1 that he wasn’t going to come over here,” said Mr. Camacho, alluding to the immigration debate. “I would have been really, really amazed.”

Government has long had muddy ties to the region. Huge orchards opened here in part because government-built dams provided water for irrigation. The government-enabled orchards could not operate without immigrant labor. The immigrants, in turn, can afford to live in Bridgeport in part because electricity, provided by a dam, is particularly cheap.

Yet immigrants hold no elective office locally, and there are relatively few Hispanic school employees in either Bridgeport or Brewster. Some graduating seniors say they want to return as doctors and nurses to help their community. Other say they want to leave for good — and their parents want them to, as well.

Norma Camacho, 18, said her mother had made her work with her in a warehouse, sorting cherries.

“I said, ‘I don’t want to do this, Mom,’ ” Ms. Camacho said. “She said, ‘That’s why I’m bringing you here.’ ”

Asked why Bridgeport’s entry in the Commencement Challenge had received so much attention — Time magazine did a feature on the school — Jasmine Mogollan, a senior, said, “because we’re doing above what is expected from us.”

“With the poverty level and the amount of Hispanics here, everybody would expect that our test scores wouldn’t be so good,” said Ms. Mogollan, 18, who plans to study international business at Central Washington University. “Everybody just thinks the same way, that we’re not going to achieve anything.”

Source: NYTimes.com, “Small, Poor, Successful School Waits for Obama, in Vain” by William Yardley, 20 May 2011.

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