Last fall, a worried high school student at ITW David Speer Academy walked up to physics teacher Jose Espinoza after class and said he wouldn’t be around for first semester finals.

Espinoza asked the student, one of his most talented, why. The student revealed he had to travel to Mexico to help and interpret for his father, an undocumented immigrant with a visa appointment at the U.S. Embassy. The appointment would decide if the father could live in the U.S.  with his family.

It was one of many instances where David Speer students confided in Espinoza. They knew, he said, “this was an issue I understood very well.”

Espinoza, 28, crossed the desert from Mexico as a toddler with his family and entered the U.S. illegally. Today, he’s one of about 9,000 U.S. residents employed as teachers or education professionals who stave off deportation and get work permits through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, according to the Migration Policy Institute. But with the future of the program uncertain amid anti-immigrant sentiment, Espinoza lives with underlying fear and worry.

When it comes to navigating the fears and trauma inflicted by America’s fraught immigration policy — especially at a time when families have been separated at the border and resident families already have been torn apart by deportations, teachers like Espinoza are on the front lines, professionally and personally.

For his departing student, Espinoza convinced the dean of students to allow his student to make up the test, and to submit homework via email. But the teacher said that might not have happened if the student was too scared or ashamed to share his family’s citizenship challenges — or if Espinoza hadn’t been receptive.

Latinos make up about one-third of Chicago’s population and a growing majority of district students. But the percentage of Latino teachers in the city lags far behind. The ratio is especially disproportionate at Chicago Public Schools. It is not certain what portion of residents are undocumented, but the effects of immigration raids and deportation infiltrates many classrooms, Espinoza said.

Espinoza saw it during his two years at Speer, a majority Latino high school run by the Noble charter network in Belmont Cragin, a West Side community that is predominantly Latino and heavily immigrant. He said Latino students impacted by immigration policies leaned on him for support because he was vocal about his own story. He even gave some of them advice to help them apply for DACA themselves or help undocumented family members. Eventually, other teachers and counselors in the school began referring students to him.

He said students from immigrant families are more fearful and anxious than they’ve been before, wondering whether they’ll come home from school again to their parents and family members or whether a car accident could lead to deportation proceedings. Students also worry whether they themselves might be arrested,  lose their DACA status, or deported.

Students have confided in him about losing family members, having to vacate their homes to avoid immigration authorities or traveling abroad with relatives, all of which have caused students to disappear for long periods of time.

Espinoza is vocal about his immigration status, and said he tries to support students. But the problems can be overwhelming.

“Their behavior changes, their grades slip, there’s many things that impact the students,” he said.  “This is affecting the lives of our students right now, every day, we see that as teachers — every day.”

“I had a unique story”

Teachers like Espinoza can help students in the immigrant community, but they shouldn’t have to do it alone. 

A spokesman for the Noble Network of Charter Schools said it connects staff and students with legal resources, immigration information and counseling. Noble also provides some financial aid to college-bound undocumented students, he said.

“We will continue to support our students, staff, and families no matter their documentation status,” a Noble spokesman said in a statement.

CPS policy denies Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents into schools without a criminal warrant or risk of violence.

Teach For America also provides advocacy, legal assistance, and financial aid to the nearly 250 of its teachers and alumni  – like Espinoza – with DACA status.

Espinoza’s family settled in the Chicago area when he was a child. His mother and father worked multiple jobs to support him, and he applied himself at school. But when it came time to seek advice from high school counselors and college advisors, he was speared with demeaning and deflating guidance.

“I was told that I didn’t have the right to go to a university and I wasn’t going to go to one because I wasn’t a citizen; they said your best best is to go to a community college and figure it out from there,” Espinoza said.

“They didn’t understand the fact that I had a unique story and that my story mattered and that I had dreams and aspirations like other students at my school, but I had more challenges in front of me. There was a stereotype in their head that those who have come to the country unlawfully at some point in their life don’t deserve the same opportunities as everyone else.”

Experiences like that inspired Espinoza to become a teacher and touchstone for young immigrants struggling toward a future vision of themselves that includes a university degree and a career. He worked multiple jobs — as did his parents — to pay for an undergrad degree in kinesiology and masters degree in public health at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Espinoza enrolled in DACA in 2012 when it was first announced, as he finished his last year at U of I.  The policy allowed him to get a work permit and was a reprieve from fears that he wouldn’t be able to put his degree to good use. He spent several years working at health-focused nonprofits and in corporate wellness before 2016, when he was accepted into TFA while working toward his master of arts in teaching degree at Relay Graduate School of Education.

At TFA, Espinoza is part of a national network of “DACAmented” teachers navigating DACA status, sharing energy, knowledge and resources to support both each other and families at schools.

“We hold onto this community very tightly, and it’s probably been the most empowering group of people I’ve met in my life,” he said.

TFA also values its DACA teachers. With a significant portion of undocumented students in the communities it serves, said Anne Mahle, TFA’s head of public partnerships, “To have that kind of role model and somebody who has navigated higher education is really important both for kids who are undocumented and for all kids. All kids need diverse perspectives.”

As a physics teacher, the curriculum doesn’t provide many smooth transitions into discussions that connect what’s happening in the classroom with the outside world. But Espinoza finds way for his experiences to inform his approach in the classroom.

He said it’s important to let students know “you’ve been there, and you’re supporting them, and even though we can’t control everything now, there’s still things we can do to prepare them financially, emotionally, and legally, but it has to start with more people like us in the classroom.”

Next year, Espinoza said he’s teaching at another Belmont Cragin charter school, Intrinsic Charter, that also has a high percentage of students from immigrant families. He expects to find some of the same concerns and fears there that he found at his last school. This isn’t an issue that’s going away anytime soon.

When Espinoza looks back on his time at Speer, he said he’ll always remember the worried student who traveled with his undocumented father to Mexico and missed first semester finals.

While the student was able to make up the test, his classroom performance declined some; Espinoza saw how such a talented, bright student could fall behind so quickly wrestling with the consequences of American immigration policy. Espinoza also saw what the student’s resilience — and support from the school community — could accomplish by the end of the school year.

“He slowly got back into his groove,” Espinoza said, “and ended the second semester with strong grades.”