The superintendent of Denver Public Schools has been panicking for weeks. Ever since word spread that the Trump administration would end deportation protection for DREAMers, Tom Boasberg has been vocal about the consequences. Revoking Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, will be "catastrophic" for the school system, he said. Denver Public Schools were the first in the country to hire teachers with DACA status, and they've played an influential role in educating an increasingly diverse student body.
Boasberg said DACA allowed him to find talented bilingual teachers who can connect with his students. About half the public school students in Denver are Latino.
"It’s hard to find great teachers period, great bilingual teachers is even more important," Boasberg said. "And we have very strong teachers here that we’ve invested in and helped train."
The schools superintendent and other DACA advocates have been urging Colorado's members of Congress to pass a bill to protect DREAMers. So far, their efforts seem to be working. Two prominent Colorado Republicans — who previously opposed DACA — have since come out in favor of passing such a law. Rep. Mike Coffman introduced a bill to extend DACA for three years, and Sen. Cory Gardner endorsed the DREAM Act, which gives DACA recipients a long-term path to citizenship.
“Children who came to this country without documentation, through no fault of their own, must have the opportunity to remain here lawfully,” Gardner said in a statement. “I’m proud to join with Senator Bennet and cosponsor the Dream Act to provide certainty to the thousands of law-abiding Coloradan Dreamers and demonstrate bipartisan leadership on this important issue."
Gardner's remarkable reversal shows just how influential DREAMers have become in the immigration debate. When members of Congress meet with them, it's difficult to ignore how American they seem or how well they've integrated into society. Most speak English perfectly, have gone to college (or are currently enrolled), and are taxpaying members of society. These are not the criminals and rapists Trump portrayed Mexican immigrants to be.
Even immigration hardliners find it hard to argue any possible benefit in revoking the legal status of DREAMers. They can't effectively argue that this group of immigrants has broken the law, since it was their parents' decision to bring them to the United States without papers. This has helped moderate Republicans — like Gardner and Coffman — make the case for protecting Dreamers.
Public schools have been recruiting DACA teachers
Boasberg said the Denver school district decided to actively recruit DACA teachers because he's seen many talented undocumented students graduate from his own schools. He wanted them to come back and teach. Now, four years later, he's witnessed what the program has done for countless Denver students.
"We've seen them go on to college and plan for a career to contribute to our society, as opposed to being driven into an underground economy and not utilizing the education that we, as a community, have invested in," he said.
The school district does not ask applicants if they have DACA status, so it doesn't track how many teachers have that protection. Even so, many are open about it throughout the hiring process. Boasberg said he reached out to local colleges and universities to let them know that Denver schools were eager hire DACA students. It was hard enough finding bilingual teachers for such a diverse urban school district.
In the past few decades, the makeup of Denver’s student population has gone from mostly white to mostly Latino. Only about 23 percent of students are now white. This is a trend in public schools across the country, but that cultural shift hasn't reached the faculty level. The latest data shows that about 83 percent of public school teachers are white. That disconnect has led many urban school leaders wrestling with this question: How can we recruit more qualified teachers whom our students can identify with? DACA was one solution.
Teach for America, a nonprofit that recruits teachers to work in low-income school districts, has been placing more DACA teachers in schools around the country after its success in Colorado. Right now the organization has more than 190 DACA teachers, alumni, and staff in 11 states. It was also looking to expand to Ohio and Tennessee.
Now these plans are on hold. Teach for America has promised to provide DACA teachers with legal assistance, and is asking Congress to pass the DREAM Act.
"They are role models to the thousands of students they teach, and leaders working alongside all of us to expand opportunity for every child," the organization said in a statement. "[Rescinding DACA] threatens not only them but also the thousands of students in our classrooms who are undocumented and the thousands of students who will be left without a teacher."
Public opinion on DACA is shifting
Recent Republican support for DACA reflects a striking shift in public opinion. Five years ago, when the Obama administration launched the program, Americans were pretty divided about giving legal status to DREAMers.
Over the years, more and more Americans started to favor the idea. Fewer and fewer staunchly opposed it. A poll from the Public Religion Research Institute shows that opposition dropped from 40 percent in 2011 to 29 percent in 2015. A new Politico/Morning Consult poll shows that two-thirds of self-described Trump voters think DREAMers should stay.
Since DACA went into effect, hundreds of thousands of unauthorized immigrant youth have gone to college, gotten jobs, and started paying taxes for the first time. They are teachers, software engineers, and lawyers. These millennials, who grew up thinking they are American, are distressed to see politicians treat their futures with such carelessness. Paul Yumbla, a middle school reading teacher in Denver, said it upsets him to watch politicians in Washington treat DACA like a political football.
"These are our lives," said Yumbla, who was born in Ecuador. "It's dehumanizing to have your life and your well-being tossed around and viewed as a political tool."
The 25-year-old teacher struggles to focus on work amid all the uncertainty, he said. How will it impact his students? He's been to their birthday parties, quinceañeras, and graduations.
Yumbla said he knows how hard it is for students to motivate themselves in school if they think it's all for nothing. He went through such a period in high school. With the help of mentors, he graduated at the top of his class and attended the University of Connecticut with a full scholarship. Yumbla joined Teach for America in 2013 because he didn't want an office job; he wanted to work with kids like him.
On his first day of classes each school year, Yumbla tells his students that he is undocumented. Many of them admit that they are too, or that one of their parents is. The day after Trump's election, Yumbla and his students cried together. As one of the only Latino teachers in a overwhelmingly Latino school, Yumbla said he knows how important it is for his students to see him succeed.
"As a teacher, you need to be a mirror or a window for students," he said. "I want them to see that you can play the game of life and be successful."
DACA workers are everywhere
While many public schools have been recruiting DACA teachers, the reality is that DREAMers work next to Americans in many different professions. There is no data on where DREAMers work or what kinds of jobs they have. But a survey of more than 3,000 DACA recipients, published by the left-leaning Center for American Progress, shows that 91 percent are working and about half of them are in school. The program has allowed them to get better-paying jobs and motivated them to buy homes. DACA immigrants get a temporary Social Security card, so they don't have to disclose their immigration status to employers.
But the level of integration they've achieved became apparent in the aftermath of Attorney General Jeff Sessions's announcement. Several Fortune 500 companies rebuked the administration's decision and said that ending DACA will hurt their businesses.
Microsoft executives, for example, said they were aware of at least 39 DACA employees who work at the company, including software engineers and finance professionals. The actual number could be much higher.
Brad Smith, the company's president and chief legal officer, gave a harsh warning to Congress:
If Congress fails to act, our company will exercise its legal rights properly to help protect our employees. If the government seeks to deport any one of them, we will provide and pay for their legal counsel. We will also file an amicus brief and explore whether we can directly intervene in any such case. In short, if Dreamers who are our employees are in court, we will be by their side.
When employers speak out about the impact of DACA on their businesses or workplaces, it makes it harder for Republicans to ignore the issue. And with a March deadline to end the program on the horizon, the pressure will just keep building.