In recent years, national leaders and media figures have made much of a supposed teacher shortage in the United States. However, data suggest that while issues exist in specialized areas, there is no general shortage of teachers right now. However, the country does remain tremendously short of the linguistically and culturally diverse teachers it needs to fully meet the needs of its growing English learner (EL) population.
U.S. education leaders must seek out diverse teachers—particularly those who are bilingual—wherever they can find them. Fortunately, many undocumented residents have the potential to be effective, qualified teachers. These ambitious, high-potential community members have many skills, training, and talents. Whether they came from abroad as teachers from their home country without citizenship or grew up in the United States undocumented, these adults have valuable linguistic and cultural skills that U.S. schools need.
Whether they came from abroad as teachers from their home country without citizenship or grew up in the United States undocumented, these adults have valuable linguistic and cultural skills that U.S. schools need.
Unfortunately, many potential undocumented teachers will never get to teach in the United States because states have implemented policies restricting their ability to be K–12 teachers, not based on their qualifications or teaching abilities, but solely on their documentation status.
At a time when U.S. multilingualism is at an all-time high, many states could particularly benefit from smoothing undocumented teachers’ pathways to teaching. The District of Columbia and thirty states—including high-EL states like Texas, Arizona, and Florida—reported shortages of English as a Second Language teachers in the 2022–23 school year. Given the growing number of ELs in U.S. schools, states should allow qualified undocumented teacher candidates to pursue their passion and begin careers as teachers.
The stigma of incomplete legal residence documentation unduly biases some education leaders against seeing these candidates’ potential as educators. But this fear is unwarranted: a large body of evidence indicates that immigrants to the United States are generally exemplary members of their communities. Fortunately, some states have begun to see the unwarranted biases against undocumented candidates and recognize the valuable contributions they could have as teachers.
Indeed, Pennsylvania legislators recently passed a house bill (110-93) allowing non-U.S. citizens to teach in the state’s classrooms. The legislation would permit individuals with valid immigrant visas, work visas, or employment authorization documents to be eligible for teacher certification in Pennsylvania schools. Currently, young undocumented immigrants protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, who can legally work, are not eligible for teacher certification. Advocates for the bill argue that it would help address EL and bilingual teacher shortages and promote diversity among educators. Representative Johanny Cepeda-Freytiz, the primary sponsor, emphasized the need to remove barriers to teaching for qualified individuals: “We have people that are bilingual, that are professionals, that have teaching degrees, currently with the inability to get certified as teachers.” The bill now awaits consideration in the state Senate.
Nonetheless, in many states, xenophobia-driven sentiments continue to bar potential undocumented teachers from the profession. For example, in 2011, Alabama passed House Bill 56. H.B. 56 limits undocumented residents’ recognition by nearly all state public institutions. It forbids undocumented citizens from applying for jobs in Alabama and applying for housing in the state. Regarding education, H.B. 56 prohibits undocumented residents from attending the state’s public higher education institutions, thereby also barring them from obtaining teacher certifications.
By adopting this stance, Alabama forfeits the benefits of a more diverse pool of potential educators. As this commentary will demonstrate, undocumented teachers possess numerous advantages that could enrich K–12 schools nationwide.
The Value of Undocumented Educators
Undocumented teachers bring unique advantages to U.S. schools: their bilingualism, their diverse identities, and the unique perspective they gain from their unique experiences. Each of these advantages can support all students in one way or another.
Bilingualism: There is a high demand for dual-language immersion programs across the United States. These programs allow native English speakers and English learners to learn two languages simultaneously in the same classroom. However, one of the most significant limiting factors for these programs is the need for bilingual teachers capable of staffing these programs. Since undocumented educators are typically bilingual, supporting clear pathways for undocumented educators to obtain teacher licensure can 1) grow dual language immersion programs in these states and 2) give more students, EL or non-EL, the opportunity to gain the skill of bilingualism.
Diverse Identities: Currently, the student population of U.S. schools is more diverse than the teacher workforce, with 53 percent of students being people of color and only 22 percent of teachers being people of color. Since undocumented residents are typically people of color, hiring these teachers can increase the diversity of the teacher workforce to be more on par with the increasingly diverse student population. Studies show that when students have access to teachers who look like them, they are more likely to do well in school. These teachers may also be more likely to connect well with English learners, newcomer students, and/or undocumented students, who rarely have teachers who can relate to their circumstances.
Unique Perspectives: Undocumented teachers typically are from or have parents from other countries. This global perspective can provide new perspectives for students and schools. For example, an undocumented teacher of Bhutan heritage may implement meditation practices in their classroom. Diversity of thought and point of view is vital for finding effective ways to teach students and innovative ways to operate schools. Undocumented teachers can provide diverse new ideas and fresh perspectives.
How States Can Remove Barriers
Fortunately, in some cases, states have seen the value of undocumented teachers and have created pathways to get undocumented teachers into classrooms. States have primarily progressed by implementing two key reforms: 1) Making higher education accessible to undocumented residents, and 2) removing the disclosure of citizenship status as a teacher licensure requirement.
Make Higher Education Accessible
For undocumented students to have more access to higher education, and, thus, to the credentials and degrees necessary to become teachers, states should ease the cost by providing in-state tuition to all undocumented students who graduate from the state’s high schools.
Some states have implemented policies to ensure undocumented students get a fair shot at higher education through access to in-state tuition. Most follow the precedent set by Texas’s HB 1403, passed in 2001, which set the following requirements for undocumented students to gain access to in-state tuition. Students must:
- Have graduated from a public or private high school or received the equivalent of a high school diploma in Texas;
- Have resided in Texas for at least three years as of the date the person graduated from high school or received the equivalent of a high school diploma;
- Register as an entering student in an institution of higher education not earlier than the 2001 fall semester; and
- Provide an affidavit stating the individual will apply to become a permanent resident at the earliest opportunity the individual is eligible to do so.
Texas could update its requirements to provide undocumented students from Texas with a more equitable shot at higher education. For example, they could change the three-year residency requirement to the one-year residency requirement that most states require for students who are citizens. Still, HB 1403 remains a clear starting point for states that have yet to implement a policy providing undocumented students access to in-state tuition.
Remove the Disclosure of Citizenship Status as a Teacher Licensure Requirement
While a few states like Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi have intentionally created rules to limit the number of undocumented teachers, many states have inadvertently created—and/or retained—roadblocks for undocumented teachers. One of the most significant roadblocks in states is Social Security number (SSN) requirements on teacher applications. Many states, without malice, limit undocumented students’ ability to become teachers by requiring a social security number on teacher licensure applications. This requirement can unintentionally block undocumented teacher candidates who have yet to receive or are in the process of obtaining a social security number.
Many states, without malice, limit undocumented students’ ability to become teachers by requiring a social security number on teacher licensure applications.
To address this issue, Colorado, California, New Jersey, Nevada, and Illinois each passed bills removing the Social Security requirement from professional licensure applications. Instead, applicants have two options: 1) provide their Social Security number or 2) provide their tax identification number. Allowing applicants to provide their tax identification number instead of an SSN offers an equal opportunity for undocumented residents to apply to the teaching profession.
Great Teachers Are Only a Few Steps Away
These are just a few potential measures, of course. States can also explore more overt steps to support linguistically and culturally diverse teacher candidates, including—and particularly—undocumented adults. My colleague Conor P. Williams and I outlined some of these in our recent TCF report, “How to Grow Bilingual Teacher Pathways: Making the Most of U.S. Linguistic and Cultural Diversity.” States can, for example, provide stipends for bilingual teacher candidates during their student-teaching period or establish alternative pathways to licensure that allow teachers to forgo taking monolingual, English-only teacher licensure exams.
Undocumented educators are an untapped group of potential teachers who have significant assets but limited opportunities to get into the classroom due to state policies, whether intentional or unintentional. States must recognize this group’s value and ability to fill the gap in our EL and bilingual teacher shortages. Implementing policies to provide undocumented educators access to higher education and teacher licensure with fewer hurdles could be a pathway to getting undocumented teachers into the classrooms.