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Shutting the door to our clunky, beautiful democracy

This perspective was originally published in the News & Observer on November 20, 2015.

In the civics class I teach for English language learners at a North Carolina high school, we usually reserve a few minutes of each class to discuss news events that relate to our course content. The news lately has been sad and difficult to discuss.

On Monday, my students — refugees and migrants from around the world — asked me why Paris was embraced in the wake of its tragedy while Beirut was ignored. They wondered why the bombings and shootings that happen every day in their countries barely even register in our news. I didn’t have an answer for them.

Today we watched a video of Gov. Pat McCrory’s statement requesting that no additional Syrian refugees be resettled in North Carolina. When it finished, I was met by a roomful of puzzled and hurt faces. They didn’t understand why the state that has welcomed them would reject others in need of safe harbor. They know what it means to need refuge, to flee war, to make the unthinkable decision to leave home and move across the world, with little likelihood of returning, because they have no choice but to do so to save themselves and their families.

This class is always my favorite to teach each year because I love introducing new Americans to our messy, clunky, beautiful democracy. We marvel at the structure of our Constitution. We talk about those who have been left out of the system over time, and the ways they have used and continue to use the courts, the vote and their voices to push their way back in.

We talk about how thankful we are that the United States has a Bill of Rights to protect political speech and freedom of religion. These students know very well what it is like to live without those protections, when speaking up can mean risking your life.

I’m not risking very much in writing this, but in the interest of walking the walk for my students, I want to say something. So I’ll use those precious First Amendment rights to say what many of my fellow residents are already saying: McCrory’s request is ignorant and fear-based. It does not represent the country I so love and am proud to share with my students. It does not represent the state I have come to consider home.

Fortunately, my students are more compassionate than the governor. They haven’t forgotten what it is like to live in post-invasion Iraq or under a military junta in Burma. These experiences have shaped their view of what government should be and do, and it is a humane, inclusive vision. Many of these students will likely be citizens in a few years; one of them became a naturalized citizen this summer and will be voting in the next general election.

They are smart, but, more importantly, they are kind. I trust that in the future they will use their talents to build a North Carolina that is more welcoming than the one currently trying to shut the door on their fellow refugees.

Jen Painter
Jen Painter is a fifteen-year veteran teacher in North Carolina’s public schools. She teaches English as a Second Language at Jordan High School in Durham and is completing a Master’s in the School of Education at UNC-Chapel Hill.