Immediately after graduating from college, Vanessa Luna moved from upstate New York to teach sixth-grade history in Los Angeles. She had always wanted to be a teacher, volunteering at youth camps as a teenager and later minoring in education. “I knew the power of education,” she tells the Voice, “and wanted to make sure other kids were aware of it.” In pursuit of her dream, Luna applied for Teach for America when she was a senior at SUNY Binghamton, and started teaching at PUC Charter Academy in Los Angeles the following autumn. One day, a student named Perla revealed that her father was being deported after an arrest for driving without a license. “That was the hardest moment, to see my student cry and tell me that her dad was told to leave the country,” Luna says. “I couldn’t tell her everything was going to be OK because that wasn’t the case.”
She knew the perils facing Perla intimately. Like many of her students, Luna is undocumented, having moved with her family from Lima, Peru, to Westchester County, when she was just ten years old. In her junior year, she applied for President Obama’s Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals program, which grants work authorization and provides a two-year grace period from immigration enforcement to the more than 725,000 people who have signed up since 2012. Sharing many of her middle schoolers’ experiences, Luna saw an opportunity to help. While at PUC, she began a clinic at her school for parents, students, and teachers that covered the rights of immigrants in California, undocumented or otherwise. When she left L.A., she left behind a binder filled with contact information for trusted immigration lawyers and other services that teachers use to assist parents.
Now a teacher at Great Oaks Charter School on the Lower East Side, Luna is facing the challenge anew: The children are afraid of a President-elect who has promised to deport the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, and Luna fears having her right to work taken away, as Trump has also promised to do. “I had students frightened because some of them are Muslim, and students crying because they were afraid their family members were getting deported,” she says. Luna doubled her efforts to make them feel safe, “even though I was having a hard time thinking that about myself,” she recalls.
In 2013, shortly after Luna applied for DACA status, Teach for America began aggressively recruiting “DACAmented” graduates, growing from just two teachers placed in Denver in 2013 to 46 in 2014, according to Viridiana Carrizales, who administers a support program for the cohort. Three years on, 146 current TFA teachers and alumni are undocumented, working in sixteen of the organization’s 53 regions. (There is no national data on the overall number of teachers with DACA status.)
“Many of our teachers in our schools where there was a high percentage of immigrants [began] asking for resources to support undocumented students,” says Carrizales, who was herself an undocumented childhood arrival in Dallas from Guanajuato, Mexico, at eleven years old. “We saw DACA as a temporary way to make sure that those who went to [college] and wanted to become teachers” had an opportunity to do so.
DACAmented teachers have led the organization’s efforts to better train their teachers who teach immigrant or undocumented students nationwide. This summer, as a campaign fueled by threats of mass deportations and immigration bans raged on, DACAmented teachers held workshops at TFA’s summer training institutes designed to help prepare rookie educators to work with undocumented students. The workshops offered examples of ways to share resources with kids without putting them on the spot or at risk, supplied suggestions of ways to incorporate conversations about immigration policy into curriculum, and covered state-specific policies that impact them. Luna led sessions in Philadelphia and Tulsa, Oklahoma.
That progress, part of a years-long response to criticism of TFA’s racial blind spots and homogeneity, is at risk if DACA is repealed. Trump could end the program, blocking new applications and preventing renewals, which wouldn’t immediately impact anyone with active work authorization. Or he could revoke the permits outright, something Peter Markowitz, head of the immigration justice clinic at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law, says would require cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security. While Trump has so far not pledged to do so, in a worst case scenario, he could target DACA recipients for deportation, which may prove unpopular even among Republicans: Lindsey Graham, a senator from South Carolina and staunch anti-immigration conservative, says he’s preparing legislation that would protect undocumented immigrants with DACA status if it’s repealed.
“People’s concern and fear is reasonable, but if this man has an ounce of political sense, and that’s a big if, then going after this most sympathetic group of immigrants who were brought here as children through no volition of their own, who have been productive members of society, simply should not be a priority,” said Markowitz.
While TFA hopes for a long-term solution for the DACAmented, such as the DREAM Act, which would create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented childhood arrivals, there are measures that could provide a stopgap, or even just buy some time until a permanent fix arrives. “Sanctuary” colleges and universities are refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials pursuing deportation. In New York City, a sanctuary city, there are a number of policies that, though limited, help prevent the federal government from tapping city resources for use in handing out deportation orders.
Carrizales points out that while TFA is worried for the safety of its staff, it’s difficult to plan next steps. But they haven’t closed admissions to DACA students just yet: So far, under twenty have been admitted to the 2017-18 corps. In the coming months, they’ll prioritize training all new teachers so they’ll be equipped to support undocumented students regardless of what happens.
Still, the waiting game proves difficult. “This isn’t new to them, constantly waiting on someone to decide your future. But that doesn’t make it any easier,” says Carrizales. In the meantime, they’ve made legal counsel available to DACAmented teachers in an advisory role, as many of them create their own contingency plans.
Luna’s work authorization expires in the fall of 2018, and for now, she’s focusing on saving money and weighing her options, which include pursuing further education — paid for in cash — on a sanctuary campus, if she’s forced to leave her job.
And with her students’ input, she has been building conversations about relevant social issues into her daily lessons. Her seventh-graders are writing letters to city judges about mass incarceration and police brutality, subjects they chose themselves. They’ll also be writing letters to the President-elect about a number of issues important to them, including immigration policy and climate change.
“I’m hoping that we are the seeds for something bigger so that in the next years we see a shift in rhetoric,” Luna says, “and the way we deal with immigrant communities.”