When Juan Carlos Perez arrived in Corona, Queens from Mexico in 1997 at the age of 11, he knew three words of English: pen, pencil and chicken.
“It was scary,” he says.
With the help of his teachers at International HS at LaGuardia Community College, Perez not only adapted; he thrived. Since 2013, he has taught math at International HS at Union Square where students, he says, identify with his journey.
“They know that I was in their shoes a few years ago,” he says.
It seems like a classic American success story — yet it is one that could be irrevocably altered by the election of Donald Trump.
Perez is undocumented. Although he earned his master’s degree in education from Adelphi University in 2008, he wasn’t able to attain his teaching certification until 2013, shortly after President Obama signed the executive order known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
DACA permits 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.
Trump has pledged to rescind DACA, which he has called “one of the most unconstitutional actions ever undertaken by a president.”
If he does, Perez will not be eligible to renew his work permit, which expires in December of next year. And if Trump moves to deport DACA recipients, “the only option would be for me to go back to my country,” Perez says.
It’s been nearly 20 years since Perez and his family moved to the United States from Tlaxcala in order to reunite with Perez’s father, who had moved six months earlier.
“It was very sudden,” he says. “I left everything. It was hard to adapt. I was terrified of saying anything.”
It wasn’t until he became a student at International HS that he gradually found his footing.
“That’s when I realized what it meant in terms of being undocumented,” Perez says. “My friends were getting driver’s licenses, work permits and filling out their federal student aid applications. There were so many obstacles and things I couldn’t access because of my status.”
At Adelphi University, where he earned a tuition scholarship, Perez set his sights on becoming a teacher. But because of his status, he couldn’t complete his certification.
“I tried to figure out other ways I could use the things I had learned,” he says. For years, he worked odd jobs while he waited in legal limbo.
“I was very hopeful in the first couple of years that something would happen soon, that I might be able to start teaching,” he says. But when the DREAM Act — which would have granted residency to undocumented immigrants who entered the United States as minors — failed to pass the U.S. Senate in 2010, Perez began to give up hope.
It wasn’t until the announcement of DACA in 2012 that Perez realized he would finally be able to teach in a classroom.
His journey has helped him understand what some of his own students are facing.
“Just recently, a senior who is undocumented came to me and told me, ‘Every time I feel like things are too much, I remember what you went through and it makes me want to try even harder,’” he says.
Earlier this month, Perez ran the New York City Marathon in 4 hours and 19 minutes to raise money for the nonprofit organization UnLocal, which provides legal services and support to undocumented immigrants in New York City. He raised $3,000.
But Trump’s election has brought on “a rollercoaster of feelings,” he says. “It was just an overwhelming sense of frustration and defeat, knowing that with the platform he ran I would lose any chance of being able to continue teaching. It’s very difficult knowing that could happen in a matter of months.”
But Perez is also heartened by the words of Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, both of whom have pledged to support undocumented immigrants in New York.
“There was a sigh of relief knowing that they will be there to support our community,” he says. “But it’s very difficult for me to even think past next year because I don’t know where things will go.”