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Bringing Immigration Home to Our Students

Ralph Hexter

University of California, Davis

The issue of immigration is highly relevant to our Classics classrooms in ways that demand our attention, and if at first that attention would seem to take us away from the study of the ancient world stricto sensu, I will argue that in fact it offers opportunities for yet richer engagement with material long at the core of our discipline.

My position with the upper echelon of university administration has given me an opportunity to learn a good deal about the special challenges the undocumented among our university students face. California is home to immigrant communities from every part of the world, which greatly enriches our learning community. We are not only the most populous US state; we have by far the highest number of immigrants – over 10 million. Most of these individuals are either US citizens or residents, but as many as a quarter are undocumented immigrants.

While our primary and secondary schools offer education to all, regardless of immigration status, high-school graduates without documentation of citizenship or legal residency face hurdles attending college. California has passed legislation that offers undocumented students who have graduated from California high schools equal access to our public higher education system, including lower in-state tuition. Denied access to federal grants and loan programs, many can qualify for state financial aid through the California Dream Act. My institution has a dedicated Undocumented Student Center to assist these students overcome, to the extent possible, the numerous hurdles in their way.

In my opinion it is extraordinarily valuable for all of our students to be aware of the reality that while all of us at the university enjoy the sheer privilege of being there, not all of us have followed comparable life trajectories. Imagine the learning that takes place when, as recently happened, a class volunteered to serve meals at a homeless shelter which two of the students then recognized, sharing with their classmates that they had at times eaten at that very location with their families during periods of homelessness!

Undocumented immigrants in the United States today, among whom are some of our own students; hundreds of thousands of refugees in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia – we live in an age of mass migration, most of it forced. How can we not recall that one of the texts that is foundational for Western Classics is Vergil’s Aeneid, which describes the movement of one mass of people – survivors of the Greek sack of Troy – across the Mediterranean to central Italy, with stops in Africa and Sicily, to name but two? Like Exodus, it is a story shaped into a triumphalist narrative and told retrospectively.

One can look back and forth between such narratives and contemporary events and note some interesting features. Retrospective narratives highlight leaders, whether Aeneas or Moses; they have beginnings, middles, ends. None of the above are easy to discern in contemporary mass migrations. We know how the story of Dido ends, but at the moment in the first book, when the Carthaginian queen welcomes the Trojans into her country and palace, might we not think of Angela Merkel, who perhaps through her own experience of East Germany, and mindful of the full twentieth-century history of Germany, is welcoming Middle Eastern refugees? Did Dido’s generous hospitality not cause dissension among her Carthaginians? And in Italy did the Trojans not meet with resistance to their settlement? On the issue of immigrations, both from Latin America and more recently around the question of accepting Syrian and other Middle Eastern refugees, North America offers figures with uncanny precursors in the second half of the Aeneid: Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, our host country, opens his heart and arms like Evander, while US President Obama is a Latinus figure, striving to overcome the fierce, unwelcoming voices of many a contemporary Turnus.

Session/Panel Title

The Impact of Immigration on Classical Studies in North America (organized by the Committee on the Status of Women and Minority Groups

Session/Paper Number


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