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Bittersweet start to school year for teachers affected by DACA

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    Areli Morales, in her senior year at Brooklyn College where she is studying to become a bilingual eduction teacher, in New York on Sept. 1. Morales earned a scholarship through a TheDream.US, a nonprofit offering grants to first generation Americans whose legal status as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program recipients prevents them from getting federal aid for college.

NEW YORK >> Jaime Ballesteros tried to contain his tears Sept. 5 while teaching Brooklyn sixth-graders about liquids, gases and solids. In between science classes at a charter school in East New York, he broke down at his desk.

The government had just canceled the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which had granted temporary protection from deportation to immigrants brought to the country at a young age. Under DACA, as the program is known, they attended college and obtained work permits, and many went back into the profession that inspired them in the first place.

“The last three years that I have been teaching was like a world of possibility for me and my students,” said Ballesteros, 25, who is from the Philippines. “Today, I just didn’t feel that same level of hope.”

He was just one of the estimated 30,000 DACA recipients in New York who now face uncertain futures, according to statistics kept by the city. The Trump administration gave Congress six months to come up with a legislative solution, while allowing the DACA permits to last until they expire.

The jobs these DACA recipients, often known as Dreamers, do have a wide impact in New York, from small business owners to financial analysts to internet entrepreneurs and nurses. In May 2016, New York state allowed DACA recipients to get licenses for teaching and 57 other professions, after a 2015 appellate court decision paved the way in ruling that a DACA recipient from Staten Island, Cesar Vargas, could become a lawyer.

The city’s Department of Education, whose schools reopened for the year today, does not keep track of how many teachers have DACA. But Teach for America, the national program that places young teachers in low-income neighborhoods, does. Twelve of the organization’s 180 teachers with DACA are in New York classrooms, the organization said. Throughout the nation, its teachers with DACA reach 10,000 students.

“We’re going to lose leaders and lose teachers — it’s not only their presence, but having a teacher than can share the same experiences that you possibly had growing up,” said Vanessa Luna, a DACA recipient who came to New York from Peru at age 10. She began in the classroom for Teach for America, and is now a recruiting manager for the organization in New York. “Their advocacy, their leadership, their resilience is extraordinary because of their own personal journey.”

Ballesteros came to Queens with his parents at age 11, on his father’s work visa, which expired when the company for which he worked as an accountant closed. They moved to Jersey City, New Jersey, and Ballesteros earned a scholarship to nearby Drew University. He started with Teach for America in 2014 in Los Angeles, where most of his high school students were Mexican immigrants.

Ballesteros said his parents, sensing the hostility toward undocumented immigrants already rising during the Obama administration, returned to the Philippines in 2015.

Without family, his fellow teachers are his support network, and they meet weekly for food and drinks. Lately, it has been a somber affair.

Many of Ballesteros’ students in East New York are from Caribbean immigrant families, and he has shared his own story with them since classes started. He declined to give the name of the school because of his uncertain legal status.

“I don’t teach to talk about the contraction of gas particles,” he said. “I teach because I see so much of myself in my students and I know that my students see little bits and pieces of their own story in mine.”

Ballesteros’ work permit expires in July 2019, and as of this week’s announcement, DACA recipients would be covered until the end of their permits. That gives him two years to stay in the classroom, but puts his goal of graduate school for a career in education policy or administration on hold.

“DACA allowed me to dream and think,” he said. “Right now I can’t think past July 2019.”

Those wanting to go into the classroom feel just as deflated. Areli Morales, 21, is in her senior year at Brooklyn College, training to become a bilingual education teacher. She earned a scholarship through a TheDream.US, a nonprofit offering grants to more than 3,000 first generation Americans whose legal status as DACA recipients prevents them from getting federal aid for college. Morales is one of 720 students throughout the City University of New York system with these scholarships, according to the university.

She renewed her DACA permit in April, but that was no consolation on Sept. 5.

“It’s devastating news,” Morales said. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do the work I’m passionate about.”

She came from Puebla, Mexico, when she was 6 years old, joining her parents and an older brother already in Brooklyn. She knew no English, but learned it so quickly that she soon forgot her Spanish. She relearned it, and then wanted to help other students succeed in both their native and second language.

Even if she were to get a job in the classroom after she graduated, Morales said her permit would expire in the middle of the spring semester of 2019.

“That’s not even enough time for one full school year,” she said.

In explaining the administration’s cancellation of DACA, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said recipients were taking jobs from American-born candidates. But Betty A. Rosa, chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents, said in an interview that DACA teachers were not only qualified, but necessary to fill a statewide shortage of teachers for English language learners, special education, math and science.

“There’s a need, obviously, to have a high-quality teacher in front of them,” she said, but she added that teachers with DACA provided diversity that could help other marginalized students feel welcome. “It’s a way to expand the conversations we’ve been having about the idea of integration and equity and having representation.”

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