The day after the 2016 presidential election was a devastating day at San Jose’s Hoover Middle School, where nearly 80 percent of students are Latino. “Students were crying,” said teacher Cristian Aguilar. “Parents were calling me … because whether or not they were born here, they still felt threatened.” Comforting his students and their parents was a big enough worry for Aguilar, but he also had his own future to worry about, as one of 5,000 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients who work as educators in California:
Aguilar was 10 when he crossed the border from Mexico with a brother in order to join his parents, who had been drawn here by the promise of a better life. Despite growing up without the legal rights and expectations taken for granted by birthright Americans, he quickly distinguished himself as a math prodigy after a bilingual teacher recognized his ability and tutored him, in Spanish, after school.
“It wasn’t until junior and senior year that I really found out what that meant, being undocumented,” he recalled.“Not being able to drive; not being able to apply for financial aid when it came to college applications. … I started noticing the discrepancies between my peers’ and my education.”
Despite having the grades and being accepted by California State University, Stanford University, and the University of California, he settled for De Anza, a two-year community college in neighboring Cupertino. That’s when fate and Sacramento Democrats intervened with the introduction of 2011’s California Dream Act, which extended state financial aid to undocumented students at public universities and colleges. As battle lines formed over the contentious measure, Aguilar threw himself into the political fight, organizing students throughout Northern California as part of a campus immigrant-rights group that also lobbied the legislature.
Though the new law paved his way into UC Berkeley, it was the 2012 implementation of DACA by the Obama administration and Aguilar’s winning of temporary legal status that enabled him to set his sights on giving back to his community.
“That's when I knew I wanted to be there for students, especially other students of color, who have been marginalized and who have been under-represented for so long,” he said. “Knowing [first-hand] the difficulty of being part of an educational system that really pushed us out—students who ‘don’t belong.’” Aguilar is exactly the kind of educator who can help change lives, especially for young students of color. But instead, Aguilar and 800,000 other DACA recipients could be torn from their homes, offices, classrooms and the only country they’ve ever known as home.
As many as 20,000 DACA-eligible educators are being held hostage by Trump unless he gets Stephen Miller’s white supremacist immigration wish list, including 5,000 in California. The nation is already facing a teacher shortage, according to the Economic Policy Institute, and the teachers we do have are underpaid and forced to shell out hundreds of dollars of their own money to buy supplies their students need. “91 percent of teachers—many of whom receive modest pay to begin with—purchase basic supplies for students whose families cannot afford them.”
But instead of paying educators what they deserve for educating America’s children, Trump wants tens of billions in taxpayer dollars for his stupid border wall that no one wants. Money that could go to modernizing public schools, hiring teachers, getting nutritious meals to students, could instead be wasted on a physical monument to his xenophobia, And, he’s set on kicking out teachers like Elysa Chavez (she declined to use her real name for publication, according to The American Prospect):
“I can't even believe that this is happening,” Chavez said of the immigration impasse. “The administration talks about getting rid of chain migration and bringing in people based on their merits and degrees, and the basic language—but I have a degree in math, which not a lot of people like. I teach math in a low-income community. I have a master’s degree. I speak the language. I pay my taxes. Everything that Trump is looking for, [DACA teachers] have. I don’t understand why they’re trying to kick us out and recruiting people with our same qualifications when we’re already here.”
She is not alone. In the months since Donald Trump announced the elimination of DACA and began threatening to abandon its recipients, Chavez has seen a pall of fear fall over her school’s 85 percent Hispanic students, particularly among the freshmen and even some sophomores, who were too young to make DACA’s 15-year-old age threshold before it was canceled.
“What I have seen is students that are reluctant to share that they’re undocumented, when a couple of years back it wasn’t such a big deal,” she explained.
Even in California, where state legislators recently passed what immigrant rights advocates call the most stridently anti-deportation bill in the nation, there is fear. For the second year in a row, officials say applications for the California Dream Act—the same program accessed by Aguilar some years ago that helped kick off his career in teaching—are down, and they’re pretty sure they know why. “College counselors ... cite immigrant families' increasing distrust of the government. Students are especially concerned about the fate of DACA which hangs in the balance”:
"There's rumors about ICE raids all the time — some unfounded and some maybe founded," said Jane Slater, a teacher at Sequoia High School in Redwood City, Calif., who also advises a club for students who are in the country without legal permission. "The headlines about immigration make people feel like they're really in the spotlight. Kids are more afraid for their families than they are for themselves.”
On the day Trump had Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III announce the end of DACA last September, 25-year-old Angelica Reyes, a program recipient, was also afraid. But she also had her students to worry about. “Reyes came to school that day to find her kids terrified both for her sake and by the specter of the uncertainty and instability it would bring if she were removed as their teacher”:
“That day,” she remembered, “it was a lot of validating their existence, their feelings, and also making sure that they understood that DACA in the first place wasn’t something that was granted to us. It’s something that a lot of folks fought for, and that’s where our communities get their power from, from advocacy and from grassroots organizing. I let them know that our federal government is very strong, but our communities are strong, too, when we come together. We can stop deportation.”