Undocumented Teachers Shielded by DACA in Legal and Emotional Limbo

Vicky Sosa, a high school senior, marches outside the Grayson County courthouse in Sherman, Texas, on Feb. 16, during a rally marking
Vicky Sosa, a high school senior, marches outside the Grayson County courthouse in Sherman, Texas, on Feb. 16, during a rally marking "A Day Without Immigrants."
—LM Otero/AP
| Updated: February 21, 2017
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Jose Gonzalez’s parents brought him to the United States from Mexico just before his second birthday.

In the 23 years since, he graduated high school with honors, earned an Ivy League degree, and received recognition from the Obama White House for his work teaching students in immigrant-filled Los Angeles charter schools.

Now, Gonzalez faces a potentially cruel twist of fate: he could go from being lauded by the White House to being a target for deportation as part of President Donald Trump’s widespread immigration crackdown.

Before joining Teach For America in 2014, he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Trump’s alma mater.

“Honestly, it kind of makes having been honored by the White House a bit of a joke. It feels like a slap in the face,” said Gonzalez, a 6th grade math teacher at Community Charter Middle School in Los Angeles.

Gonzalez is among the more than 700,0000 undocumented immigrants awaiting word on the fate of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, an Obama-administration policy that grants temporary deportation reprieves and work permits to people brought to the United States illegally as children.

During the 2016 campaign, Trump promised to repeal the executive order the day he took office. Since the election, he’s been less clear on what his intentions are.

Four weeks in, he has yet to take action on DACA. In a marathon news conference on Thursday, he promised to address the issue “with heart.”

“DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me,” Trump said. “It’s one of the most difficult subjects I have because you have these incredible kids.”

Trump’s words would seem to offer some hope to Gonzalez, but he doesn’t see it that way.

A set of sweeping immigration enforcement orders issued Tuesday by the Department of Homeland Security does not affect deferred action or its recipients. Until the Trump administration announces its plan for the young immigrants, Gonzalez and other undocumented teachers across the country remain in limbo. They fear that, with the stroke of a pen, the president could immediately revoke their status or sunset the program by preventing current deferred action recipients from renewing their protections.

And recent immigration enforcement actions have only amplified their uncertainty.

In a series of raids conducted this month, U.S. immigration authorities arrested hundreds of undocumented immigrants in at least a half-dozen states, including California, marking the first large-scale enforcement of President Trump’s Jan. 25 order to crack down on undocumented immigration. As part of the sweeps, agents detained and threatened to deport a 23-year-old Seattle man who received deferred action protection. Authorities alleged he has ties to gangs, a charge his lawyers deny.

“Suddenly, everything is uncertain again, so the constant stress…you can’t even describe it,” said Alexis Montes Torres, a Teach For America corps member in the Houston metropolitan area. “It’s very bizarre to think that I could be going back to a country that I don’t really know, and I don’t really understand.”

Fear and Caution

Gonzalez and Torres are among 100 undocumented Teach For America members who are teaching nearly 6,000 students across 11 states. Amid the uncertainty, TFA is offering free legal assistance to its members and its 46 alums who are also DACA protected.

TFA has already accepted close to 40 undocumented corps members for next school year. But if DACA is repealed without a replacement, the organization will have to put off assigning them to work in a school. Corps members need valid work permits and the ability to work at least two full school years, spokeswoman Kathryn Phillips said.

The organization began hiring the so-called DACA-mented teachers in 2013 in a nod to the shifting demographics in the nation’s K-12 classrooms.

“Having a teacher who is able to identify and share the same background and the same immigrant experience as our students was very important,” said Viridiana Carrizales, the director of DACA corps member support.

Gonzalez was honored by the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics in August 2016. The Obama White House honored another California educator, Jaime Ballesteros, as a Champion of Change in 2015 for his work as a high school chemistry teacher in Watts. He was among nine undocumented educators recognized for their efforts to ensure that all students, regardless of their immigration status, have access to education.

“When I went into the classroom, it was actually the first time that I told my story,” said Ballesteros, also a Teach For America corps member. “I told my story to make my students feel less alone. Not necessarily to make myself a role model, but to let them know that I’m there and I know their struggles and I’m here with them.”

Now a middle school teacher at KIPP Academy of Innovation in East Los Angeles, Ballesteros came to the United States from the Philippines as an 11-year-old when his father found work in the New York metropolitan area. When the recession hit, Ballesteros’ father lost his job and work visa, leaving the family in the U.S. without legal status.

Like many of his students, Ballesteros has lived in a near-constant state of fear since the election.

“I was really devastated for quite a while. I felt helpless,” Ballesteros said. “When I wake up every morning at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning to go to work and serve our communities, I do that with joy. But I also do that knowing that I’m doing it in a country that doesn’t necessarily want me here.”

While Gonzalez and his colleagues benefit from DACA, they have mixed feelings about the message it sends, faulting their parents for crossing borders with their children and painting a “dichotomy of this model immigrant versus this criminal immigrant and this deserving versus undeserving,” he said.

“It’s about families, it’s about what’s doing right for human beings is what it boils down to,” Gonzalez said. “I don’t think I am any more deserving than my parents because I have an Ivy League degree.”

Educators Stand Up

As the Trump administration ramps up enforcement actions, immigration advocates with ties to K-12 education are pushing back.

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten has called on the nation’s big-city mayors to shield immigrant students and their families.

Teach For America CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard, former education secretary John King Jr., and Weingarten are among 2,000-plus education leaders, including superintendents of some of the nation’s largest school districts, who have signed on to a petition requesting continued protection for young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, popularly known as DREAMers.

Noting the bonds that immigrant educators can form with students, the petition urged that “teachers who were brought here as children must be able to continue to strengthen our schools and our nation.” Many of the leaders are calling on Congress to pass the BRIDGE Act, a bipartisan bill that would temporarily extend protections for deferred action recipients.

Former U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano has also spoken out in support of undocumented students. As a cabinet member under President Barack Obama, she helped develop DACA, but also led a department that deported record numbers of immigrants from the country.

Now, as the president of the 10-campus University of California system, she is advocating not just for those who received deferred action, but all undocumented students.

“We see the worth and the merit of these young people and to subject them to deportation after what they’ve achieved goes against our principles,” Napolitano said during a recent forum hosted by the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.

Since Trump’s election, University of California officials have said they would refuse to assist federal immigration agents or turn over confidential student records without court orders.

Dozens of school districts around the country have also publicly pledged to provide similar protections for immigrant students and staff.

On Thursday, immigrants and their supporters across the country stayed home from work and school—known as “a day without immigrants”—in protest of Trump’s policies.

Political Divide

Gonzalez and Torres visited Mexico, their native country, for job-related training in summer 2016 under “advanced parole,” a visa-like document that allows DACA recipients to travel outside the United States.

While Gonzalez relished the opportunity to finally meet relatives he only knew through phone calls and photographs, it was a jarring experience for Torres.

“It was crazy because I hadn’t been there since I was four, and yeah, it just doesn’t feel like home because it isn’t,” said Torres, a middle school social studies and history teacher in the Spring Branch school district in Houston. “I can’t help but feel like I’m as American as, I guess the cliché, apple pie.”

Most of the nation’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants live in just 20 major metropolitan areas, according to Pew Research Center estimates based on federal data.

Los Angeles and Houston—the cities where Ballasteros, Gonzalez, and Torres teach—rank second and third, trailing only New York City. Their classrooms are filled with the children of immigrants or students who are immigrants themselves.

“This issue ... doesn’t escape them. Even I remember, as a child, being very acutely aware of my parents’ immigration status, what was happening, what they were fearing,” Torres said. “I don’t really have a choice but to talk about it because I know that my students fear this.”

Not all schools welcome the conversations though.

In the Austin, Texas, public schools, the district has warned teachers not to talk about the recent immigration raids that rounded up dozens of undocumented residents. Frustrated students there have staged walk-out protests in response.

The action in Austin underscores the deep political divisions around immigration.

While California lawmakers and officials have pledged to challenge President Trump on immigration issues at every turn, Texas’ attorney general filed a brief of support with a federal appeals court in support of the president’s now-halted immigration order that mandated a travel ban for refugees and residents of seven majority-Muslim countries.

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Wary of the political climate there, superintendents in the Lone Star State have signaled their support for immigrant students and teachers, but have stopped short of vowing to protect them.

That reluctance won’t stop Torres and other educators from fighting.

“We’re going to hold the president and his administration accountable because if he really wants to make America great, then he’s going to have to really take a deep, hard look at American history and remember the Irish immigrants that came here, the German immigrants, the Polish, and now the Hispanics and how we have contributed to this country and this economy,” Torres said.

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Clarification: This story has been updated to clarify that a petition signed by 2,000 education leaders calls for protecting undocumented immigrants who attend and work in K-12 schools. The petition does not include language that calls for passage of the BRIDGE Act.

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