Equity & Diversity

With Rollback of DACA, ‘Dreamers’ in U.S. Schools Prepare for a Fight

By Corey Mitchell — September 07, 2017 6 min read
Berenice Oliva, a DACA recipient, is a sophomore at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tenn. Oliva earned a college scholarship from Equal Chance for Education, a group that grants financial support to DACA-protected students.
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For months, President Donald Trump promised to treat young undocumented immigrants known as “Dreamers” with “heart.”

But for teacher Jose Gonzales, the steps Trump took this week to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—or DACA—are heart-wrenching.

The day after the Trump administration’s announcement to rescind DACA, an Obama-era program that shields some young immigrants from deportation, Gonzalez—an undocumented immigrant himself—faced classrooms full of middle school students terrified that either they or relatives could face immediate deportation.

Roughly 250,000 school-age children have become DACA-eligible since President Barack Obama began the program five years ago, the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute estimates.

Millions more students in the nation’s public and private schools are the children of undocumented immigrants, according to the Washington-based Pew Research Center.

Those numbers—and the stories behind them—define Gonzalez’s work.

A math teacher in Southern California’s immigrant-rich San Fernando Valley, Gonzalez said many of his adolescent students have lived in constant fear since Election Day because of their immigration status, or that of their parents.

As he tried to explain to colleagues what the end of DACA could mean for him and his students, he said he trembled as tears streamed down his face.

“There’s a lot of confusion. I’ve acknowledged that, shared with them how I’m feeling, and acknowledged that it’s OK to be scared,” Gonzalez said.

“To put all of that pressure of everything that is happening on the shoulders of a 10- or 11-year-old, I can’t even imagine.”

The Trump administration’s wind-down of the DACA program allows Congress time to find a legislative solution to address the status of the 800,000 so-called “Dreamers”, the young undocumented people who benefit from the program.

The House and Senate now have until March 5 to pass an immigration reform bill, something they’ve tried and failed to do for more than a decade.

The Trump administration said it will honor all existing DACA permits until their date of expiration up to two full years from now. DACA recipients whose eligibility expires between now and March 5 have until Oct. 5 to apply for renewal.

However, Trump’s decision slams the door on people who were eligible for the program but who hadn’t yet applied; all new applications for DACA protection will be rejected.

The repeal of DACA only compounds widespread fear caused by what has been perhaps the most aggressive immigration enforcement operation in modern American history, said Roberto Gonzales, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who studies the lives of undocumented residents.

“This is going to send a very clear message to those kids. Our government told their teachers that they don’t belong,” Gonzales said. “It’s sending a message that if you are undocumented, period, then you have cause to worry.”

Fighting Back

From Los Angeles to Washington, school superintendents, education advocacy groups, and union leaders quickly and loudly condemned Trump’s move.

The day of the decision, hundreds of students in Denver walked out of classes, taking to the streets in protest. Rallies in Chicago and New York drew thousands.

Former President Barack Obama, who used his executive authority to enact DACA in 2012, denounced his successor’s decision to terminate the program.

Before that decision, nearly 400 corporate CEOs signed a letter asking Trump and Congress to save DACA protections for the “dreamers.”

“I had been very fearful and hopeless up until this past week,” said Leslie Arreaza, a third-year student at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C. “The amount of action from different communities throughout the country kind of brought hope to me. At this point, we’re not fighting to get DACA back, we’re fighting to get a permanent solution.”

Arreaza, who wants to work as an English-language-learner teacher and counselor, came to the United States from Guatemala at age 8 speaking little English.

Arreaza is attending college as a Golden Door Scholar, a partnership between private donors and private colleges that offers tuition support to DACA-eligible students, on the condition that scholarship recipients promise to help younger students like themselves attend college.

Similar college-aid programs are popping up in places where undocumented students aren’t eligible for financial aid or in-state tuition.

Nashville, Tenn.-based Equal Chance for Education has granted scholarships to more than 1,000 high-achieving DACA-eligible students including Berenice Oliva, a second-year social work student at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville.

After coming to the United States at age 9 from Mexico, Oliva graduated from high school in Nashville with honors. Now the aspiring social worker is wondering if her dream of working with immigrant children will be deferred.

“You’re constantly thinking, ‘What is going to happen to me? Am I going to be able to finish my education? Is it going to be cut short? Will I be here next month or next year?’” Oliva said. “Our lives are set out here, and moving back to the country that we were born in is just kind of like saying, ‘Start over just like you did when you were brought here.’”

Despite Trump’s plans to end DACA, the Equal Chance for Education organization has committed to support Oliva and her peers through college graduation. It will also open another round of applications for the four-year, $25,000 scholarships to high school seniors, said Molly Haynes, the organization’s co-executive director.

“These [students] are fighters, fighting every day to be the best that they could in school and be with their families, and be a part of this community,” Haynes said.

Immigration advocates in Tennessee are buoyed by the fact that the state’s attorney general backed out of a 10-state effort to pressure Trump to end DACA. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton led a coalition of Republican attorneys general that threatened to file a legal challenge to the program; Trump administration officials said the threat forced it to make a decision on DACA.

But now the administration is facing legal action from the other side of the issue. Fifteen states and the District of Columbia are suing the Trump administration over its decision to end DACA, arguing that repealing the program causes “immediate harm” and does not provide due process rights to the young people enrolled.

Protecting Educators

Jose Gonzalez’s parents brought him to the United States from Mexico just before his second birthday. And because of that, he’s found it difficult to sleep and focus on work in the days since the announcement.

Before joining Teach For America in 2014, he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Trump’s alma mater. He’s shared the story with upwards of 500 students over the past four years.

Gonzalez is among more than 180 undocumented Teach For America corps members who are teaching 10,000 students across 11 states. Amid the uncertainty, TFA is offering free legal assistance to its members and dozens of alums who are also DACA-protected.

The impact of the DACA decision could devastate communities, “not only for our teachers, but on all the lives that they touch, like all of these students and families,” said Kathryn Phillips, a TFA spokeswoman.

In response to stepped-up immigration enforcement, the organization’s DACA-protected teachers ran training sessions this summer to educate new corps members on the rights and responsibilities of teachers with undocumented students and families.

Gonzalez plans to keep fighting for those students, their families, and himself.

“[I] reassured them that I’ve been fighting my whole life, and that our communities have been fighting their whole lives, and that this is no different,” Gonzalez said. “We’re going to continue fighting and we’re going to put up the fight of our lives.”

Related Video

In this April 2017 video, Education Week’s Kavitha Cardoza spoke to students and teachers who are DACA recipients about how the election of President Donald Trump and the increased threat of deportation has affected their lives.

A version of this article appeared in the September 13, 2017 edition of Education Week as ‘Dreamers’ Brace for New Fight for Legal Status


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