How I talk to my high school students about DACA

Photo by Sameer Vasta

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump announced his decision to end DACA, a program that gives young immigrants who have been in the United States since 2007 or earlier protection from deportation and temporary work permits. I could give you numbers on how many people will be affected and I can repeat arguments from many business leaders who support DACA on the basis that its recipients have been good for our economy. Instead, I want to show you how this affects real people in real life. 

I wish you could be in my shoes for a moment as a teacher on the border of Texas and Mexico with undocumented students in my classroom. Many of my students keep me up at night praying that I’m not letting them down when I’m given the charge of preparing them for their future. I hold up my Rice- and Harvard-educated wife as an example of what’s possible for undocumented students while my nerves of not knowing how much their hard work will pay off shake me to my bones. Through the nerves, I remind my students that knowledge is a power that no law can take away. I try to give them a place in my classroom where they feel like they belong and they matter. 

A few weeks before the 2016 election, a student told me privately, “Sir, I really don’t like (a teacher at our school). She’s voting for Trump.” I asked her why a political opinion should be the basis of not liking someone. There are good people who support Hillary Clinton and good people who support Trump, I explained. She replied with urgency. Sentences sprinted out of her mouth as if they were running away from danger: “Does she want us here? What does she think about us? She’s supposed to be a teacher. She’s supposed to look after us. And she don’t even want us here. Kids are supposed to learn from her and she’d send us away if she could.” 

I lost my breath and my heart slowly shattered. “She doesn’t know,” I said meekly.  “She does care about y’all,” I continued nervously. “We’re here for y’all. Not everybody knows—”

“Not everyone knows what, sir?”

“Not everyone knows that — not everyone knows what it could mean… if Trump wins,” I stumbled. It seemed like my student was processing my words before I was. 

“Yeah,” she replied softly. That translates to: “I don’t believe you, but thanks for trying.” 

I think back to that conversation every time I talk to someone who I know voted for Trump. I have faith that most people who voted for him don’t know the harm he’s doing to people I love. 

DACA used to be a promise that immigrants who were brought here as children and have a spotless criminal record can have the opportunity to come out of the shadows and work without fear of being taken back to a country many of them barely remember — if they remember it at all. 

Would you be able to come to my class and tell my students who have lived here since they were two that they don’t belong here? Would you be able to explain to my students why their parents with a spotless criminal record who’ve raised them in this country for 16 years have to be taken away from them? I wish you could stand in my shoes and see the hopes and dreams of my students. Their tenacity and grit in the face of the unknown would inspire you.  

Now that DACA will end, I implore you to support the DREAM Act, a piece of legislation sponsored by a Republican and a Democrat that would protect those who lost DACA. Call Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. John Cornyn, and your representatives. Tell them that you want to protect people like my students from deportation. 

My students are now seniors and they’re preparing to take a leap of faith into college. They’re jumping into four years of hard work without being able to see where they will land. Their faith lies in the hope that America is still a nation where you can reach your full potential if you’re willing to work hard. It is our obligation to keep the promise of the American Dream.