WASHINGTON – Former Phoenix high school teacher Reyna Montoya said it was typical for undocumented immigrant children to come to her and talk about their troubles in school and their fears at home, where they or their parents might be deported.
They came to Montoya because she understood. She was undocumented herself before getting a deportation deferral and work permits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
“I knew what it was like to grow up undocumented in the state of Arizona,” she said. “So, I think that has really grounded me to what is my responsibility to talk to young people and children, to let them know that they are powerful and that they have a voice and irregardless if they have a Social Security or not, it does not define their worth.”
Montoya was one of about 1,000 DACA-eligible people in the state who are working as teachers or in teaching-related occupations, according to an estimate last month by the Migration Policy Institute.
With the future of the deferred deportation program uncertain under the administration of President Donald Trump, those teachers are again living with the fears that their students have: Will they be allowed to stay in the U.S., will they still be able to work?
The number of DACA-eligible teachers is just a fraction of the 60,000 certified teachers in the state, but educators argue that every single teacher matters.
“A loss of any teacher in any capacity that has committed themselves to a community, to a school, will not just impact the community but more so it will impact the child’s ability to grow academically,” said Marisol Garcia, vice president for the Arizona Education Association.
And Garcia said removing a DACA teacher would have a double impact, since many relate to their students as Montoya did.
“In general most of these teachers are going to be working in similar-circumstances communities, so they are dealing with families that are here with first-generation students,” Garcia said. “And so they have a unique view of what education can do for a child.”
Other DACA teachers agreed about the value of being able to share the same “unique reality” as their students.
Yadira Garcia, a DACA recipient who teaches high school in the Phoenix Unified School District, said that when it comes to her immigration status, “I tell my students, I always tell my students.”
“It’s really, really important that they understand that they’re safe because a lot of them were really scared,” said Garcia, who teaches freshmen.
The support cuts both ways: DACA teachers say that seeing students face their fear inspires them and helps them get over of their own fear.
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“If I can sum it in one word, it would be that I admire their resiliency, and the way that they?re really able to operate in a system that is not fit for them,” Montoya said.
Viridiana Carrizales, managing DACA director at Teach for America, said the organization has heard from teachers of kindergarten children and younger who “were drawing pictures of their families sitting in jail or their families hiding.”
“It’s just something that as a teacher, it’s really tough to be able to teach math or science when your students are coming into your classroom with that fear,” Carrizales said.
DACA opponents acknowledge that doing away with the program could be painful for those who have been protected from deportation under the Obama-era program. But they call the program unconstitutional, an executive overreach in 2012 by President Barack Obama that must be corrected.
“Obviously it was not as good (in 2012) for the DACA recipients as it is now, no one can say that that’s a good thing for DACA recipients,” said Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, a group dedicated to immigration reduction.
“The thing is, though, it would go back to what is legal,” Beck said.
Montoya admits that “there was life before DACA,” but she said critics fail to see just how devastating the current “unease” is for their students. She would urge people like Beck to “think about my students, I want you to think about the children who are growing up with a lot of trauma in this nation.”
Marisol Garcia agreed.
“I would imagine that having a teacher leave under these circumstances would be shocking and, even more so, just critically imbalance what is happening,” she said. “Because students come to school and want to feel safe and want to feel consistency, so losing a teacher at a campus will do more damage they any other damage that can possibly be done to a student.”
But Beck argued that any job held by a DACA recipient, is a job held illegally. He urged his critics to think of the impact of that, and the benefits of stripping those recipients of the work permits they received under the DACA program.
“So what would happen is that the DACA recipients who now have a legal work permit, when that permit runs out, then their employers would be in a situation whether to break the law and continue to hire them, or lay them off and seek an unemployed American to fill that job,” he said.
He dismissed complaints that school districts cannot afford to lose teachers at a time when they are having trouble finding enough applicants to fill all their teaching slots.
“This is where the logic works,” Beck said. “If you’re having trouble finding enough teachers, you get to work at doing a better job at recruiting.”
But Carrizales said that logic is hard to square with the emotions teachers and students are facing.
“Imagine having students who are afraid of losing their parents to deportations,” she said. “And now they have to worry about losing their teachers to deportation.”