Juan Carlos Perez was busy on Sept. 5 preparing his classroom at International HS at Union Square in Manhattan for the first day of school when he heard the news.
“I knew it was coming, but I was preoccupied and completely lost track of time,” said Perez, who arrived in New York City with his Mexican parents in 1997 at the age of 11. A colleague came in to his classroom and told him U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions had announced the termination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program or DACA on March 5 unless the U.S. Congress acts. When he checked his phone, Perez saw that several friends had tried to reach him, too.
“It was very upsetting,” said Perez, who is now at risk of being deported to Mexico, a country he has not seen in 20 years. “I wasn’t surprised by the president’s position, but it was still upsetting.” [See “After long road to classroom, teacher fears deportation,” New York Teacher, Dec. 1, 2016.]
Perez went to Trump Tower that afternoon to lend his voice to an impromptu “Save DACA” rally.
Since the announcement by his attorney general, Trump has sent mixed messages about his intentions regarding DACA. Perez said he has followed the news of the president’s meetings with New York Sen. Chuck Schumer and California Rep. Nancy Pelosi. “These conversations make me hopeful that they will pass something more permanent, because DACA was temporary,” he said.
Ashrya Gupta, a teacher at Harvest Collegiate HS in Manhattan who advocates for immigrant students, also expressed hope that a more inclusive DREAM Act would be passed into law. DACA’s high fees and eligibility requirements left many young people out in the cold, she noted.
Jennifer Queenan, a teacher at Sunset Park HS in Brooklyn and also an advocate for undocumented immigrants, said she, too, hoped new legislation would address DACA’s limitations. “Many of our undocumented students never qualified for DACA in the first place because of the dates they arrived in the United States or because they have had minor run-ins with the law,” she said.
DACA, created by President Barack Obama’s executive order in 2012, allowed certain undocumented immigrants who entered the United States before the age of 16 to receive a renewable two-year work permit and exemption from deportation. DACA enabled Perez, for instance, to obtain his teacher certification in 2013.
Fear and uncertainty have gripped students and UFT members registered with the DACA program. They are concerned that DACA has become a bargaining chip in the partisan wars of Washington, D.C. No new DACA applications are being accepted; current DACA recipients had until Oct. 5 to renew their applications. For many, that October deadline meant quickly raising the $495 renewal fee — the same amount they paid when they initially applied for DACA.
AFT President Randi Weingarten organized a teleconference town hall on Sept. 12 with organizations from around the country to voice support and share resources on behalf of the nearly 800,000 DACA recipients whose lives hang in the balance and to keep the pressure on for new legislation.
“This is a moment when we must wear our morality on our sleeves,” she said.
The town hall brought together education organizations that do not often share the same views. Among the groups on the call were Educators for Excellence, the Education Trust, Stand for Children and Teach for America, in addition to the National Immigration Law Center and United We Dream. John King, the former U.S. education secretary and New York State education commissioner with whom the UFT and the AFT often locked horns, also participated.
“DACA participants are American in every sense except their status on paper,” King said.
Educators from around the country also listened in and asked questions about how to help their students. Many participants called for a DREAM Act that provides a pathway to citizenship without funding a border wall or any other “compromise” measure.
Back in the classroom, Perez is staying focused. After finishing his own renewal application, he has helped other DACA participants renew their applications before the Oct. 5 deadline.
“Many students know my story, and they check in with how I’m doing,” Perez said. “But I don’t want to burden them with that.”