In the first weeks of school, Rosario Quiroz Villarreal always prioritized culture building with her elementary students in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, an area that is home to a large migrant population. She would do one activity in which students would say “if you knew a little more about me, you would know that—” and they would share a fact about themselves that they wanted the class to know. A believer in leading by example, Quiroz Villarreal felt it was an important moment to share her status as an undocumented immigrant with her students. “I would say to my students, ‘Look, this is who I am and maybe you see yourself reflected in me. If you do, I hope you understand that there may be additional barriers for you, but that doesn’t mean that it has to hold you back.’”

José González Camarena was also drawn to the classroom by his experience navigating educational systems as an undocumented student with constant fear and uncertainty. Despite a hesitancy to be open at the time, he reflects now on the value of being authentic and vulnerable with his students, “so that in the event that I had students who were undocumented themselves or who came from mixed-status families, they felt like they were not alone, which is something I felt myself in K–12.”

Many DACA educators say they also joined the profession to offer solidarity and support to students who might be facing similar challenges, even if sharing their immigration status is not always the safest option. However, access to the profession is extremely limited for undocumented folks.

Why Immigrant Status Diversity Is Integral in the Classroom

Scholars across many fields have long stressed the importance and benefits of teacher diversity and representation in education. According to the literature, students demonstrate improved academic outcomes when they are racially or ethnically matched to their teachers. Similarly, scholars at Vanderbilt University found that Black students are more likely to be referred to gifted programs when taught by Black teachers. Representation should include all the multiple, complex, and intersecting identities we carry: race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, and immigrant status, to name just a few. These are all markers of identity that our students seek to be reflected in their leaders and educators. As such, undocumented students of any race may be uniquely inspired by teachers who know and personally understand their experiences, and policies that bar undocumented folks and DACA recipients from becoming teachers can prevent students from having access to role models with diverse life experiences.

Undocumented students of any race may be uniquely inspired by teachers who know and personally understand their experiences, and policies that bar undocumented folks and DACA recipients from becoming teachers can prevent students from having access to role models with diverse life experiences.

In this context, the Supreme Court’s recent decision on DACA, which blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to end the program that protects undocumented people who came to the country as children from deportation, offers the country and education leaders a chance to reexamine the considerable benefits that DACAmented educators (and undocumented folks in general) offer their communities.

González Camarena did indeed see the positive impacts he had on his students, and he believes the special connection he fostered with them was reflected in their performance in the classroom.

“They were outperforming our neighbor schools, our district schools, and I think that so much of that is due to the way that I approached my teaching, stemming from my experience as an undocumented student and wanting to ensure that, as much as I could, I was giving my kids a fair shot,” he said.

Other undocumented educators believe that even if they don’t share that identity marker with their students, being vulnerable about their status helped to increase sympathy in their students for the immigrant experience. Vanessa Luna, cofounder of ImmSchools, a nonprofit that provides immigrant-centered trainings for educators and “know your rights” workshops for undocumented students and families, remembers when the 2016 election happened, a student asked her, “Miss, what do we need to do? What do we need to get done? How can I help?”

She reflected: “It was just the fact that she knew someone, like her teacher, who was going through this that made her want to be more involved with [an issue] that could be so abstract and confusing for a seventh grader.”

Barriers for DACAmented Educators

Access to a career in teaching is extremely limited for undocumented folks. When Luna first began her teaching career in 2014, New York State did not allow undocumented people, including DACA recipients like herself, to become certified teachers. Committed to staying in education despite her status, she relocated to Los Angeles where she was able to get certified to teach history. She also shared the experience of a friend in North Carolina who could not relocate and was barred by teacher certification laws that require citizenship or residency. None of this is particularly uncommon.

“You could only be an undocumented teacher in some states,” she said. “The only options for me when I was joining [Teach For America] were California, Texas, New Mexico, and Colorado.” According to Teach for America, only seventeen states currently permit DACA recipients to be certified and placed in schools.

Certification is just one of many structural barriers to becoming a teacher as an undocumented person in the United States. Access to higher education teacher preparation programs and tuition support are critical early steps towards training and educating future undocumented teachers. According to the Center for American Progress, about 76 percent of active DACA recipients reside in states that offer in-state tuition to students regardless of their immigration status. Some of these states, including California, Texas, and New Jersey, also provide state-sponsored financial assistance to students that meet certain criteria. However, many states lack any tuition equity legislation, and at least seven states explicitly deny in-state tuition to undocumented students (including DACA recipients), making higher education unaffordable and unattainable, thus making the teaching profession out of reach for many.

“Growing up, education didn’t feel like a career path that was accessible for me,” Quiroz Villarreal shared about her hesitancy to enter education after college. She is now an education and immigration policy entrepreneur at Next100, where she works diligently to increase educational equity for immigrant students and students of color.

For other undocumented folks, like Quiroz Villarreal, the biggest barriers were the logistics of paperwork and renewing DACA every two years. She said it wasn’t until she heard that Teach for America was specifically recruiting DACA recipients and providing them support and resources throughout their time in the classroom that she even considered teaching as a viable career path for her. So despite her initial hesitation, she took the opportunity to follow her dream.

In 2013, a year after President Barack Obama created the DACA program, Teach for America implemented the DACA Initiative to provide greater access to the classroom in addition to financial and legal protection and mental and emotional resources for its DACAmented teachers. The program has grown since, supporting hundreds of educators across the country.

González Camarena now serves as senior managing director of the Initiative. He says the Initiative aligns with the mission of TFA to ensure that all students have access to a quality education; promoting teacher diversity to reflect the experiences of those students is a critical component of that process, and TFA tries to provide the support and skills needed for DACAmented educators to be able to focus on their students’ growth.

The Future of Educational Equity

According to Next100, nearly 15,000 DACA recipients serve as educators for more than 325,000 students annually. Besides the work of TFA and many immigrant rights organizations and immigration advocates within other education non-profits, there has been little overlap at the state and federal level to support DACAmented educators nor any widespread effort to eliminate barriers for undocumented teacher-candidates.

Given the empirical benefits of representation, it is imperative that education leaders invest in teacher diversity that reflects all the multiple, complex, and intersecting identities our students carry. We need to develop policies that recruit, train, and retain diverse educators from start to finish.

Given the empirical benefits of representation, it is imperative that education leaders invest in teacher diversity that reflects all the multiple, complex, and intersecting identities our students carry.

Especially in regions with heavy migrant student populations, schools should be recruiting educators with migrant backgrounds (Denver Public Schools has taken on this charge since 2014). Additionally, there should be school structures to connect undocumented students and families with community resources. All teachers at the school should be trained to be sensitive to and adequately support undocumented students or students from mixed-status families in their classrooms. The #HomeIsHere Toolkit, produced by Next100, United We Dream, Immigrants Rising, and other organizations committed to immigrant rights, is a great place to start.

Recruiting DACAmented teachers into the classroom, however, is not enough if they are not able to stay. Though an important win for immigrant rights, the recent Supreme Court decision to deny the Administration’s attempt to end DACA is only temporary. Recipients still need to renew their applications every two years, and DACAmented educators continue to live in fear that their status will be revoked, taking them away from their students. In order to retain DACA educators long-term, education advocates and policy makers need to commit to join the fight to pass the American Dream and Promise Act, which gives DACA recipients a long-term path to citizenship.

Finally, if we are a society that believes in the potential of all students regardless of the color of their skin or where they were born, we must also invest in their futures. Giving undocumented students the opportunity to use their education to give back to their communities through teaching by removing all citizenship requirements from certification should be a priority among policymakers. It is good for our children, and it is good for society.

In the wake of a pandemic that has unequally impacted Black and Latinx communities while simultaneously relying on their continued “essential” labor, we are also addressing the racial injustices and systemic inequities laden in each of our institutions, particularly in education. We must have a moment of reckoning with the failures of our education system to support all students regardless of their citizenship status. It is the duty of policymakers to actively commit to eliminating those inequities and ensuring a holistic education for all students, first by dismantling the barriers for DACAmented educators and amplifying their voices in the education arena. Their experiences and voices are critical to achieving true educational equity.

header image: Roberto Martinez, a DACA recipient, chants and cheers following the Supreme Court’s decision regarding the Trump administration’s attempt to end DACA outside the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.. Source: Drew Angerer/Getty Images