Perspective

'Do We Build Bridges or Walls?' Teachers Weigh In on DACA

Demonstrators stand outside the U.S. Capitol during an immigration rally in Washington. —Andrew Harnik/AP
Demonstrators stand outside the U.S. Capitol during an immigration rally in Washington. —Andrew Harnik/AP
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Since the Trump administration announced last fall it would end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which allots protections and work permits to people brought to the country illegally as children, hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants have been waiting to find out: Would Congress come up with a way to help them?

For that group, known as Dreamers, which includes nearly 9,000 U.S. educators and many more school-age children, last week’s budget negotiations were supposed to offer an answer. But after a government shutdown was resolved on Monday, lawmakers are still in disagreement about immigrants' legal protections. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., pledged to vote on a bill to resolve DACA and border-security issues by early February.

A recent Education Week Research Center survey showed that the majority of educators (70 percent) are supportive of the DACA program. They have more conflicted feelings about immigration in general: Forty-four percent of educators surveyed said they think the impact of immigration on schools is "mixed," while 38 percent think it's a good thing. About 8 percent said immigration is bad for schools.

With debates still in full swing, we asked a handful of educators to weigh in on the latest proceedings. As the immigration conversation continues and DACA hangs in the balance, how do they think lawmakers should move forward in the coming weeks?


Lawmakers Should Sit Down With Students

My students, who are all immigrants to the United States, arrived too recently to have benefited from DACA. Most of them came to the nation’s capital as unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala, or Honduras in the last several years. But because some of them are undocumented, they would take news of any legislation that enables undocumented immigrants to get permanent legal status in the United States as a sign of hope. Of course, those who are undocumented would be elated if a new law gave them a chance to legalize their status.

My students often express gratitude for the opportunities they have here. Some had stopped going to school in their home countries because of poverty or gang violence. Now, the majority of my students juggle high school and work. In fact, according to a survey taken by my school's guidance counselors, 78 percent of the 75 juniors taking my English classes have jobs. Some of the city’s fanciest restaurants, including ones frequented by members of Congress, employ my students. In January, Chef Jose Andres argued in The Washington Post that revoking protective status for Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Haitians could devastate the restaurant industry at large.

I often wonder how the perspectives of policymakers might change if they sat down with the kitchen staff in one of those upscale restaurants where they dine and heard their stories—and really listened. If they talked to any of my students, I believe they might be inspired by my students’ dreams to eventually make contributions to their communities as psychologists, nurses, or computer engineers. I ponder whether such interactions would change the tenor of the debate over immigration policies.

Mary Ann Zehr teaches history and English in the International Academy at Francis L. Cardozo Education Campus in Washington. She is a former journalist for Education Week who specialized in writing about English-language learners.


Legal Status Does Not Determine Character

As a teacher in inner city schools in Southern California for almost four decades, I had many outstanding young people in my classes whose parents brought them to America illegally. I also had some very destructive young people in my classes whose parents brought them to America illegally. I can say the same thing for those born in America. Legal status does not determine whether a person is outstanding or destructive.

President Trump’s policy on immigration is correct: All immigration should be based on America’s national interest. Granting legal status should not be based on a lottery or on what time period of their lives individuals were brought to America. DACA recipients and immigrants whose relatives already have legal status should apply for legal status as individuals. Only the outstanding young people who want to assimilate as Americans, who have skills and talents to contribute to America’s national interest, should be granted this status.

Legal status should not be given to any immigrant who has committed crimes; if they have, they should be deported and never be allowed to apply. A fair immigration policy should also prohibit undocumented immigrants from collecting welfare, so they are not a burden on American taxpayers.

Those immigrants who followed U.S. laws and came to America legally should be eligible for a path to citizenship. Any immigrant who enlists in our Armed Forces should also be eligible for citizenship after they have successfully completed their enlistment.

America is a land of opportunity. As in every other aspect of life, we should judge people by the content of their character.

Joe Sackett taught 7-12 grade world history, U.S. history, economics, and AP government in Southern California for 38 years.


A Matter of Racial Equity

My reaction on DACA is one of frustration and, frankly, indignation. I can’t imagine the ever-present cloud of fear and anxiety that lingers over so many families whose fate hangs in the balance until Feb. 8. While Democrats and Republicans wrangle over the terms of a deal and attempt to control the narrative, it’s important to remember the level of terror Dreamers constantly live under.

Immigration raids have intensified, with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement sweeping up undocumented people at their workplaces and while they travel to and from school. These measures are justified by allegedly targeting "criminals," but have largely been indiscriminate in their application.

With the end of DACA and the potential of reducing family migration and ending the diversity visa lottery, it’s clear that people from African, Asian, and Latin American countries will be disproportionately impacted. This is a matter of racial equity. If lawmakers do not reach a resolution, it will likely lead to a rise in absenteeism among undocumented students and the students of undocumented family members’ and other risk factors that will negatively impact student outcomes.

It’s irresponsible for our nation not to find a humane, long-term solution for absorbing a population of undocumented people who came here as youths into the American franchise. Educators no doubt have differing opinions. What I hope remains consistent is the position asserted in the Supreme Court’s 1982 ruling of Plyler v. Doe, which ensured equal access to education for undocumented students. This ruling essentially argues that holding children responsible for the acts of their parents "does not comport with fundamental conceptions of justice."

Some 800,000 Dreamers are in the United States, many of them working, going to school, and contributing positively to American society. They deserve to have a clean Dream Act that charts a path for obtaining citizenship, without using a border wall as a bargaining chip. At minimum, educators should stand is solidarity with their students as they fight to become naturalized and keep their families composed.

James E. Ford is a principal consultant at Filling the Gap Educational Consultants, LLC, in Charlotte, N.C., and the 2014-15 North Carolina Teacher of the Year.


Bringing Together Two Americas

When I was a kid, the town where I now teach was almost 100 percent white. Over the past generation, it has become about 40 percent Latino. When that wave of immigration happened, Jim Rollins, the superintendent of our school district in Springdale, Ark., faced a version of the choice that faces Congress as they decide what to do about DACA: Given that we have two Americas, do we build bridges or walls?

Rollins found himself caring for two very different groups of students and families—white, religious conservatives who had lived in the region for generations, and newcomers from Mexico, El Salvador, and the Marshall Islands who struggled to learn English and make a new home.

He could have resisted the influx of immigrants, made excuses for the dive in test scores, and funneled the new arrivals into second-class schools. Instead, he chose to convey a clear message to every teacher in the district: "It doesn’t matter whether a child comes from across the street or across the ocean. The minute they walk through that classroom door, they are our kids."

Every teacher in the district was trained in the gradual release of responsibility model, an approach that builds in structured conversation, active learning, and language support. The district developed a program for parents to learn English and attend school alongside their children, which has grown to over 300 Latino and Marshallese moms, dads, and grandparents.

Our superintendent brought together two Americas, in ways that were moving and sometimes hilarious. At a back-to-school event, a group of Latino and Marshallese children sang a song in rhythmic, perfect English. Then a red-haired white student burst onto the stage, mic in hand, and began to rap ... in Spanish.

At our back-to-school event this year, Rollins took the stage. The first words he spoke were, "In Springdale, we don’t build walls. We build bridges." That decision has made all the difference.

Justin Minkel is a 1st and 2nd grade teacher at Jones Elementary in Springdale, Ark., a high-performing, high-poverty school where 85 percent of the students are English-language learners.


Finding a Win-Win Situation

I do not claim to be an expert, because there are many variables involved in this complex situation. There is the side of humanity and compassion, and there is the side of economics, practicability, enforcing the law, and financial sustainability.

I have many friends from Mexico and know that around 5,000 public school teachers in California were eligible for DACA status. I understand wanting a better a life for your family. As a mother myself, I would do anything to help my children attain a bright and hopeful future. I also do not like to see families split up. My heart is for the children, and I believe if we can do something to keep families together so the kids can be raised by both parents, we should try to make that happen.

DACA young adults who are not breaking the law and who are acting responsibly through working and trying to better themselves should be given an opportunity for citizenship. I know adults who came here both legally and illegally who are now very successful in their careers. Many of them have told me they believe illegals should ambitiously aspire to become legal and seek to be tax-abiding citizens by respecting the laws. They feel opportunities should be given to DACA young adults to become legal, especially since they were brought here at an age when it was not their choice. However, those who now have citizenship feel that there are many people taking advantage of the system.

I realize a line has to be drawn somewhere. We cannot set up a law and then fail to enforce it; this is how we got into this dilemma in the first place. We need to set laws that are good for our country as a whole, and at the same time, have reasonable steps in place to assist responsible immigrants in obtaining citizenship.

I know I'm oversimplifying things, but I pray we can find a win-win situation. Our country was built on immigrants, so we need to embrace that heritage and encourage contribution of diversity, while at the same time not enable dependency.

Brenda Lebsack is a K-6 adapted physical education teacher in Santa Ana Unified School District and a trustee of Orange Unified School District in California.


Keeping Undocumented Teachers and Students in Mind

I’m always trying to look for what’s best for my students. I currently work at a small charter school as an administrator. I’ve connected to different DACA students at my school who share a similar story to mine: I, too, am an ex-DACA recipient and have faced that limbo and daily uncertainty.

We are lucky that our school has been very supportive. We were even able to take political action when DACA was rescinded last September, going with 70 students to stand in solidarity with Dreamers at a local protest.

I try to support students and listen to them. The only thing I can do is give them hope to continue working hard for their education. I try to provide the resources necessary for them to succeed in school and on their path as individuals, to be resilient to the changes and barriers they face. This means helping them fill out forms for state financial aid and finding outside scholarships that don't require a social security number. These supports made a difference in my education, so I want to share those same opportunities with my students.

We need to keep our undocumented students and teachers in mind when we talk about immigration issues. I try to ground myself in pushing for DACA legislation and including other folks who have been in the struggle and not reaped the benefits. There have been people fighting for the Dream Act for years who have not qualified for DACA because of age or other circumstances. Although I now have legal status, I don’t forget where I came from and will continue to fight for my family, my students, and my community, especially during these uncertain times.

Udell Calzadillas Chavez is the front office manager at Monte del Sol Charter School in Santa Fe, N.M., and a Teach For America 2016 corps member.


Constant Change Brings Frustration

As a former teacher and current organizer with Angelenos Organizing for Education, I consistently shuffle through media sites and news channels for the latest information on DACA. To say that there have been inconsistencies in the information that is out there is an understatement. The most recent information states that as part of the agreement to end the government shutdown, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has promised action "around" immigration.

This could mean a number of things, but the deadlines, renewal opportunities, and decisions themselves change on a daily basis and continue to bring frustration and stress to households around the country.

For me, this is personal. I still keep in touch with many of my former students and their families, and for many of them, their livelihood is threatened. I watched many of these 16- and 17-year-olds walk throughout the neighborhood of Fullerton, Calif., asking residents to push their representative, Ed Royce (R-Calif.), to vote for a clean Dream Act. My students, like many students around the country, are hardworking, intelligent, and passionate individuals that deserve the opportunity to continue living the American dream.

My hope for my students and all of the DACA recipients in the United States involves a clean Dream Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship and a permanent, legislative solution for undocumented immigrants who came to this country as children. Through the efforts that my students and many students around the country have put forth, I see that my work as an organizer is more meaningful than ever.

Genesis Keller was born and raised in the Greater Los Angeles area. She is a former middle and high school special education and journalism teacher in northeast Los Angeles and a current organizer with Angelenos Organizing for Education. She continues to work to work with students in the organizing capacity, helping them develop their skills and interests in community organizing.


A Challenge to Teachers' Efficacy

I teach math in a middle school where more than 80 percent of the student body identifies as Latino or Hispanic. My role as a teacher is to facilitate my students’ intellectual growth so that they can attain their goals, regardless of their background. However, my efficacy as a middle school teacher is challenged by my students’ legal status. A significant proportion of my students are undocumented immigrants who entered the United States with their families to escape the violence or extreme poverty back in their home countries.

While other kids their age worry about school and the awkwardness of puberty, my undocumented students bear the added burden of worrying about tenuous legal status. Without DACA's protections from deportation and opportunities to find employment, they are condemned to living on the fringes of American society—taking low-paying jobs under-the-table, feeling deterred from reporting crimes to the police, and lacking the means to contribute to the country they grew up in.

My students dream about being police officers, doctors, engineers, and scientists. Without DACA or any other pro-immigrant legislation, their goals will be difficult—and even impossible—to obtain. It frustrates me how little I can do to help my undocumented students succeed. DACA has provided a beacon of hope for undocumented youths wanting to improve their circumstances. If Congress and the president fail to pass a bipartisan solution on immigration, children and young adults will be punished for coming into and growing up in the United States, a supposed offense in which they had no say. An entire generation of lives is currently at stake.

Yoo Eun Kim is a middle school math teacher in Boston and a 2016 Teach For America corps member.


All photos courtesy of the authors.

Vol. 37, Issue 19, Page 27

Published in Print: February 7, 2018, as Teachers Weigh In on DACA
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