In his State of the Union address this week, President Donald Trump called for a pathway to citizenship for “Dreamers,” while urging for new restrictions on legal immigration and funding for a wall along the border with Mexico. In the audience was Ivonne Orozco, who is the 2018 New Mexico Teacher of the Year—and also a Dreamer.
Orozco is one of the nearly 9,000 K-12 teachers protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was put in place by President Barack Obama. There are also about 250,000 school-age children who are eligible for DACA. She was one of dozens of Dreamers accompanying Democratic lawmakers at the State of the Union address this week (a group that included at least one high school student).
Orozco, 26, teaches high school Spanish at the Public Academy for Performing Arts, a charter school in Albuquerque, N.M. She has used her platform as state teacher of the year to advocate for a bipartisan solution to restoring DACA protections.
“I am passionate about teaching, I’m passionate about creating a space that allows my students to love learning,” Orozco said in an interview yesterday, adding that while she doesn’t consider her teaching to be defined by her personal story, DACA allows her to do this work.
Earlier this month, she met with U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico, in Washington to discuss the Dream Act legislation that Congressional Democrats have been pushing for. Heinrich then invited her to be his guest at the State of the Union address, saying in a statement that Orozco’s commitment to education is “truly inspiring and reminds us just how much is at stake for communities across New Mexico.”
Orozco spoke to Education Week about her background, her experience at the State of the Union, and how she discusses immigration in the classroom. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about your immigration story.
I came to the United States [from Mexico] when I was 12. I attended schools in New Mexico in middle school, in high school, in undergrad, and then now [for] my graduate degree—I’m getting my master’s in education with a focus on reflective practice. I’m just there to become a better teacher.
When my parents made the decision to immigrate to the United States, it was really to provide our family with opportunities. And I worked so, so hard—of course, learning the language in middle school, learning English, was really difficult, but I had the support of teachers along the way. One of my first memories of someone telling me I should go to college was my science teacher from 10th grade. I don’t have a whole lot of memories from that time period because of the language barrier, but I have this very clear memory of Mr. Kennedy telling me, “Yes, you should go to college.” And he was one of the first adults to tell me that, other than my parents. Teachers have always been a cornerstone of my learning and of my process of becoming an American in every way but [on] paper.
When I was choosing a career, thinking back to who’s made an impact in my life, I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I felt this call to give back to my community, so I started my degree in education without knowing if I’d be able to work as a teacher. Two years before I graduated, my junior year, DACA was announced. That announcement has just made such a difference in my life.
When it was announced it was being canceled [by Trump], it was so devastating, because I realized this has the impact of taking me away from my students and the job that I love doing—the job that’s truly a calling. It has been really scary.
Do you have immigrants and children of immigrants in your own classroom?
We do have a lot of students with mixed-status families, so this is something that hits very close to home with them. There are also a lot of students who don’t have that [connection], so they’re learning along the way, and they’re asking questions of their government. They’re getting to know, how are these decisions made? Who has to make them?
I think it’s really created a spark that I feel every American should have. Every American should be informed the way these decisions are made, and my students are starting that now, which is really, really awesome to see.
Do you talk about immigration policies in class?
We don’t talk about it a lot—at the end of the day, I am a Spanish teacher. Most of our focus is very academic.
But it’s so important to acknowledge that students come in with uncertainty from their communities. We can’t put them into boxes and say, “OK, right now you’re a Spanish student who’s going to congugate all these ar verbs.” That’s not who they are. Who they are is people with feelings and anxieties, and people with real lives and real stories. Because we are a border state, our communities are deeply, deeply connected with our immigrant communities. So many immigrants in our community are doing awesome work, and they are affected by these types of policies, whether it’s the removal of DACA or whether it’s people debating whether their grandmother can get a driver’s license.
Students come in with those fears and thoughts in their hearts, and it’s so important for the classroom to be a safe space where they can express those things and acknowledge them and talk and debrief, and then we can move on and be language learners, all along the way.
What did you think of President Trump’s State of the Union speech, which you saw in person?
It was a little disappointing that some of the remarks presented immigrants as criminals, and I think it’s very disappointing to paint immigrants in that light when so many of us are teachers, we’re doctors, we’re working in our communities, we’re giving back, we’re working in state offices. I think it was a little disappointing that it wasn’t acknowledged that we are doing some really outstanding work in our communities and these fields of service.
However, overall, it was a really awesome experience just to be in the gallery, to be in that room where you can just feel all the history and feel all of those traditions. It was kind of a surreal experience.
Trump has said that he’s open to a path to citizenship for Dreamers. Are you optimistic?
I am optimistic. I have faith that lawmakers, such as Sen. Heinrich, are really championing this issue, and they’re really bringing forth the stories that matter. I think a bipartisan solution will be reached. I hope that solution will not punish the rest of the immigrant community, and I think right now that’s a lot of my anxiety and fear.
I’m really hoping there will be a negotiation that keeps in mind that we are people, and we are doing really good work in our communities—whether that’s through DACA or another way.
What are you most looking forward to telling your students about your State of the Union experience?
They will be really interested in all the great Congresspeople that I got to meet. [I got to put our name out there], saying I work in Albuquerque at the Public Academy for Performing Arts, and share some of their stories and what they do, and what talented young artists they are. That really brought joy to the conversations.
I think they will be really excited to hear that their personal stories are being shared at those types of tables.
Image courtesy of Orozco
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.