Equity & Diversity

As End of DACA Looms, an ‘Anxious Time’ for Immigrant Educators and Students

By Corey Mitchell — January 04, 2018 7 min read
Demonstrators hold up balloons during an immigration rally in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and Temporary Protected Status (TPS), programs last month in Washington.

As the deadline for the end of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals nears, each week hundreds of young people who were brought to the United States illegally by their parents are losing the permits that allow them to legally work and stay in the country.

While leaders in Congress have vowed to find a fix, a concrete plan still hasn’t materialized—and some immigration advocates are beginning to worry that nothing will happen before the March 5 cutoff.

Even as DACA supporters stage rallies on Capitol Hill and in communities across the nation, little has changed in the four months since President Donald Trump announced plans to end the program. The lack of progress and looming deadline has left undocumented residents, many of whom teach and learn in the nation’s K-12 schools, in a state of constant uncertainty, with a sense of hopelessness already setting in for some.

“It feels like time has already run out for a lot of people,” said Viridiana Carrizales, the managing director of DACA member support at Teach For America. “It is just becoming a very anxious time.”

The immigrants affected by DACA were brought to the United States illegally as children. And millions of U.S.-born students in the nation’s schools are the children of undocumented immigrants, many of whom aren’t protected by DACA and are at risk for deportation.

Maricruz Abarca, of Baltimore, a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient who is originally from Mexico, cries during a demonstration with other supporters of the DACA program outside of the U.S. Capitol last month. "I'm so worried about the possible separation from my children," says Abarca.

Just how many jobs in K-12 education hinge on a DACA deal remains unclear, but the potential impact on schools is significant. The Washington-based Migration Policy Institute estimates that a quarter-million students have become DACA-eligible since President Barack Obama began the program in 2012 and that about 9,000 undocumented, DACA-protected teachers work in U.S. schools.

Federal law prohibits schools and districts from adopting enrollment policies that deny or discourage children from enrolling because of immigration status, but school employees are not afforded those same protections.

Teach For America began hiring the so-called “DACA-mented” teachers in 2013, and nearly 200 undocumented corps members and alumni have taught in the nation’s K-12 schools, reaching tens of thousands of students.

But if DACA is repealed without a replacement, roughly 40 of those teachers could be out of work come April. From there, the clock would start ticking on other work permits.

“The education community is really putting most of its energy behind legislation that will keep teachers in classroom,” TFA spokeswoman Kathryn Phillips said.

But with two months before the Trump administration sunsets DACA, observers say there’s still no clear-cut path to a legislative solution.

Will Congress Fix DACA?

Despite an outpouring of public support from school and business leaders across the country, DACA remains a divisive issue on Capitol Hill. Immigration policy in general has confounded lawmakers for decades, even without a pending deadline on a decision that could directly and suddenly affect the lives of so many.

“Congress has repeatedly tried to reform our immigration system ... and they’ve repeatedly failed to do so. It’s kind of a bleak picture in that respect,” said Sarah Pierce, an associate policy analyst with the Migration Policy Institute. “On the more optimistic side, I don’t think any immigration-related issues have gotten as much attention as this one. There seems to be a huge push on both sides of the aisle to resolve this issue.”

The best shot at resolution may be the Dream Act, a bill sponsored by Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Their legislation would essentially turn DACA into a formal legal program and offer those individuals an opportunity to become United States citizens over time. The Congressional Budget Office estimates the bill could grant lawful immigration status and work authorization to as many as 2 million people. According to Pew Research Center estimates, there were 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States in 2015.

Lawmakers in both chambers have met frequently since the fall, with Durbin and Graham leading bipartisan talks in the Senate. But a solution can’t come fast enough for DACA recipients: Nearly 15,000 have already lost DACA protection since Trump announced plans to end the program.

The decision could also affect the lives of children born in the United States: the millions of students in the nation’s public and private schools who are the children of undocumented immigrants. With deported or detained parents, many of those students could have their educations placed on hold.

“It goes beyond the [DACA] recipients. The sense of uncertainty is certainly just as alarming and disquieting as if there was a firm understanding of what was going to happen,” said Julie Sugarman, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute’s National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, where she focuses on issues related to immigrant students in elementary and secondary schools.

The threat of deportation has hit home in cities large and small, including border communities.

Greg Ewing, the superintendent of schools in Las Cruces, N.M., was in Washington last month to relay stories to members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus about how ramped-up immigration enforcement has upended life for families in his district. He described days where upwards of 20 percent of children in the 12,000-student district stayed home from school as reports of Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids spread. Many of the students were elementary-age children who depended on their parents to get to school.

“What’s most appalling is that these students are American citizens, and yet they are fearful about their future and future of their parents,” Ewing said he told the members of Congress. “They have a fear of even walking out their front door and going to school.”

Time Is Running Short for Immigrants Protected by DACA

Three former homeland security secretaries, including Janet Napolitano, who helped developed the DACA policy as an Obama administration cabinet member, warned congressional leaders and officials that they don’t actually have until March 5 to take legislative action. The group warned that the window to protect undocumented immigrants will actually close mid-January, nearly two months before the date outlined by the White House. The former cabinet members estimate that Congress would need to pass a bill by Jan. 19 to allow enough time for the federal government to process applications before the March 5 deadline.

Legislation “should be enacted speedily, in order to meet the significant administrative requirements of implementation, as well as the need to provide certainty for employers and these young people,” the letter said.

Since DACA went into effect in 2012, roughly 800,000 people were protected by the program, and close to 700,000 had active DACA protections in September, when the Trump administration announced its end.

To be eligible, applicants had to have arrived in the United States before age 16 and have lived there since June 15, 2007. Trump repeatedly pledged to repeal DACA during the 2016 presidential campaign. After he left it untouched during the first half of the year, a group of Republican-led states threatened to challenge the program in the courts before a judge who had already blocked an expansion of DACA to include the parents of those individuals.

In response, the Trump administration terminated the program. The president called on Congress to find a legislative solution, while praising DACA recipients as “good, educated and accomplished young people.”

But Trump and his GOP allies have demanded that any bill to make DACA permanent be paired with border security and other measures to deter illegal immigration, even pushing for several elements that Democrats have said are non-negotiable.

On Tuesday, Trump accused Democrats of “doing nothing” for DACA recipients and has vowed to not back off his demand for funding a border wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and scaling down family-based migration.

“A big sticking point in this whole debate is where the president lies on this issue,” said Pierce, the Migration Policy Institute analyst. “It’s been hard for people to gauge what the White House is going to require in order to agree to a deal. That’s definitely thrown a wrench into the whole negotiation process.”

As the discussions continue in Congress, educators and families across the country are bracing for the unknown.

“As educators, we don’t exist to get involved in policy issues,” said Ewing, the Las Cruces superintendent. “But we’re going to have a group of people who were educated here, raised here, who are culturally and linguistically American, yet they lack that one piece of paper. To be told that there’s not a place for them, that’s not an American value.”

An updated version of this article was published in the January 17, 2018 edition of Education Week.
A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2018 edition of Education Week as Unknown Fate For DACA Leaves Dreamers on Edge

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