Equity & Diversity

Supreme Court to Tackle DACA. What Does It Mean for Students, Teachers, and Schools?

By Mark Walsh — November 08, 2019 | Corrected: November 11, 2019 6 min read
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When the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday takes up a case about the Trump administration’s effort to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the 700,000 recipients of the program’s relief from deportation will be on edge.

Many of those undocumented immigrants who came to this country as children are students, including some still in high school, while others are now working as educators.

One such education professional is Vanessa Luna, who relied on the Obama-era DACA program to join Teach for America and later co-founded ImmSchools, an immigrant-led nonprofit organization that partners with K-12 schools and educators to support undocumented students and families.

“I got DACA when I was in college as soon as it began in 2012,” said Luna, 28, who emigrated to the United States from Peru at age 10. “It was a huge deal for me.”

Luna is among several educators featured in a friend-of-the-court brief filed by Teach for America in a group of consolidated cases on the future of DACA that the justices will hear on Nov. 12. The lead case is Department of Homeland Security v. Regents of the University of California (No. 18-587).

The court will weigh whether the decision by President Donald Trump’s administration to rescind DACA beginning in 2017 was “arbitrary and capricious” under the Administrative Procedure Act. Several courts around the country have blocked the rescission because challengers were likely to prevail on their claims that the Trump administration acted on a flawed premise that DACA was unlawful.

The Supreme Court took up the administration’s appeal of those rulings. However the court rules, the consequences will be enormous.

‘National Identity’

A decision for the administration will mean DACA will continue to unwind and recipients will no longer hold a status that permits them to legally attend school, work, or obtain driver’s licenses.

A decision in favor of the numerous parties—colleges, a teachers’ union, immigration civil rights groups, and individuals—that challenged the rescission of DACA would keep the program alive, at least temporarily.

And the decision is likely to come next spring or early summer, in the middle of the 2020 presidential election campaign.

“DACA recipients are found among our students and working in our schools and colleges,” Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in an interview. “They are part of our national identity and a critical part of our communities.”

The AFT is not just chiming in with a friend-of-the-court brief. It is a party to one of the suits that challenged the Trump administration’s action.

“There is a basic humanitarian zeal that we have as a union,” Weingarten said. “If you didn’t actually know who had immigration papers and who didn’t, you wouldn’t know the difference in our schools. Any argument to strip DACA away from them in an ex post facto way after they have been here and created roots is inhumane and intolerable and abhorrent of who are as Americans.”

The National Education Association and National PTA have filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the challengers of the rescission, pointing out that many DACA recipients have completed high school and college and entered public service, including in education.

“School districts … have hired thousands of DACA recipients” who “have helped alleviate the nationwide shortage of qualified educators, particularly in high needs schools and communities, and they serve as role models for the next generation of increasingly diverse students,” the NEA/PTA brief says.

States Cite Education Costs

The administration makes multiple arguments in support of its effort to rescind DACA, even as Trump himself has sent mixed signals, such as by tweeting support for “the Dreamers” in September 2017 around the same time the Department of Homeland Security was initiating the rescission. (“Dreamers” refers to undocumented immigrants who would gain legal status from the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act long stalled in Congress.)

“At best, DACA is legally questionable; at worst, it is illegal,” U.S. Solicitor General Noel J. Francisco said in a brief.

The administration argues that the 2012 DACA program, which was established by Obama by executive authority, violates federal immigration law in the same way that two later Obama programs did—an expanded DACA and the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, known as DAPA.

Those latter programs were blocked by a federal district court in Texas, in a ruling that was upheld by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans. The Supreme Court deadlocked 4-4 in an appeal of that decision in 2016, which affirmed the 5th Circuit without an opinion, which effectively killed those programs.

Homeland Security’s “decision to wind down the DACA policy was more than justified by DHS’s serious doubts about the lawfulness of the policy and the litigation risks in maintaining it,” Francisco said in the brief.

The administration’s allies include several anti-immigration groups and a number of Republican-leaning states whose threatened lawsuit against the original DACA program after Trump took office helped prompt the rescission.

DACA “inflicts ongoing irreparable harm on the states,” such as requiring them to increase spending on education, health care, and law enforcement, says a friend-of-the-court brief filed by Texas and signed by Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, South Carolina, South Dakota, and West Virginia.

The briefs of education groups offer legal arguments on why they believe DACA was not properly rescinded, but those briefs also seek to put forth some human stories.

Teach for America, which has 6,500 teachers in 2,500 schools, says in its brief that it counts about 90 DACA recipients in its current teaching corps and 150 more as recent alumni.

“In 2013, Teach For America was among the first organizations to recruit DACA-eligible college students” and the organization “has expended considerable resources to recruit and support these talented young people on their journey to becoming teachers and leaders in communities nationwide,” the brief says.

Anne Mahle, the senior vice president for public partnerships at Teach for America, said in an interview that her organization saw potential among the DACA recipients because of their determination and resilience.

“We are on hundreds of college campuses across the country every year recruiting our country’s most diverse and talented leaders,” she said. “We just knew that we wanted [DACA recipients] in front of our kids.”

Guiding Educators, Families

Luna, the TFA alumna who co-founded ImmSchools, learned about Teach for America while a student at the State University of New York at Binghamton, and she was thrilled that the organization was welcoming of DACA recipients. She taught 6th grade social studies at a Los Angeles charter school for two years, with some students who were also undocumented or had undocumented immigrant parents.

“We couldn’t not talk about immigration in my classroom,” Luna said. “It was really my students who lifted me up in that conversation.”

Luna returned to New York City to work at the Great Oaks Charter School before helping launch ImmSchools in 2017, which is currently focused on New York state and Texas, offering workshops for undocumented students and families and professional development for educators serving immigrant communities.

Luna said she has had to have “really difficult conversations” with high school students who under DACA would have been eligible to apply for relief at age 15 but now may not because under the pending court cases the program is closed to new recipients. She tells them there are still ways for them to attend college even without DACA status.

Luna will travel to Washington for the Nov. 12 arguments, when thousands of demonstrators are expected outside the court, some likely on each side of the issue.

“Our community is here to stay,” Luna said. “We belong here.”

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