Facing the Unknown

What Trump’s election means for undocumented educators

PHOTO: Agatha Bacelar/Emerson Collective
Marissa Molina, who is able to work in the U.S. through DACA, teaching at DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School.

For three Denver educators, life in Donald Trump’s America is a big unknown.

They worry the president-elect will erase the protections that allowed them, as undocumented immigrants brought here as children, to step out of the shadows and into the classroom. All three were inspired to teach by the teachers who helped them succeed in a new country.

Marissa Molina came to the United States from Mexico when she was 9. Before her first day of school, her uncle armed her with the phrase, “I don’t speak English.” The librarian read Clifford the Big Red Dog with her after school to help her learn the language.

Alejandro Fuentes left his native Chile when he was 4 to join his mother in the United States. When he repeated for her the first sentence his teachers taught him to say in English — “My name is Alex and I like to learn” — she cried.

Carlos Ruiz’s mother brought him to the United States when he was 6 to give him a better shot at graduating high school and going to college, which she hadn’t been able to do in Mexico.

When Ruiz was in 11th grade, she gave a speech about what it meant for her and her son to be undocumented. A local college president was in the audience. Afterward, he gave her his card and offered to help. Ruiz said he never would have been able to afford college otherwise.

“It wasn’t until the middle of college that I realized not everybody’s parent gives a speech and the president of a university happens to be there,” Ruiz said. “That’s when I realized wanted to go into education so I could open the doors for other students.”

Ruiz, Fuentes and Molina became teachers through Teach for America, a national organization that recruits college graduates to teach in low-income schools. Starting in December 2013, the organization began deliberately seeking out graduates granted work permits and exemption from deportation through President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.

Known as DACA, it was created by executive action in 2012 to give protections, but not citizenship, for two years at a time to undocumented immigrants who came here as children.

Trump has said he plans to reverse Obama’s executive actions, including DACA.

If that happens, the nearly 750,000 young immigrants shielded by DACA would be forced into the underground economy. Ruiz, Fuentes and Molina could no longer work in public schools.

“Teachers have such a huge potential for change and being positive … influences on students,” Fuentes said. “The fact that would not be something I could do deeply saddens me.”

We spoke with all three educators, who are in their early- to mid-twenties, about their lives and careers — and how a presidential election in which they weren’t allowed to vote could profoundly alter them.

•••

Marissa Molina grew up in Glenwood Springs on Colorado’s Western Slope. Her family, fearful of the repercussions, instructed her never to speak about her immigration status.

“That created a lot of shame for me,” she said. “My story and my struggles, instead of being something I was proud to overcome, really was just a sense of embarrassment.”

Marissa Molina. (Photo courtesy Marissa Molina)
Marissa Molina. (Photo courtesy Marissa Molina)

It wasn’t until her senior year of high school, when she was working with her school counselor on scholarship applications, that she admitted to not having a Social Security number.

“Instead of making me feel like a terrible person, he was like, ‘Let’s get to work. Let’s figure out how you’re going to get to college,’” she remembers. “That sense of empowerment he gave me to advocate for myself was something I had never felt before.”

Molina ended up enrolling at Fort Lewis College in Durango as an international student, but paying tuition was a struggle. She cleaned houses with her mom and tutored fellow students in Spanish to help her parents with the bill. But by her junior year, their resources were tapped.

“I remember having serious conversations with my parents: ‘I’m not going to do this anymore, I don’t want to live this lie. What does it mean if they give me a piece of paper that I graduated and then I can’t use it?’” she said. She told them she was thinking of going back to Mexico.

Her mother begged her to have faith. That summer, Obama announced DACA. One of Molina’s friends called to tell her about it. “I will never forget because I was cleaning windows with my mom and saying, ‘You were right. I just had to have a little bit of faith,’” she said.

Molina applied right away and then secured a scholarship to help pay for her senior year. As she was deciding what to do after graduation, she came across Teach for America, which had placed its first two “DACAmented” teachers in Denver. Though she had majored in political science and economics — not education — Molina felt called to give back.

“This was a way to say, ‘Thank you for what you’ve done for me. Let me pay it forward by helping other kids achieve,’” she said.

Last school year, Molina taught Spanish at DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a charter school in far northeast Denver. While the student body was more than 50 percent Latino, Molina said she was the only Latina teacher. That made a difference to her students, she said.

One comment in particular stuck with her.

“The student said, ‘This is the first time in a classroom where I can have a conversation about race and immigration without feeling sick to my stomach. … Listening to her tell us her struggle as a Latina woman helps me understand how I can do it,’” Molina recalled.

This year, Molina is the community engagement coordinator at Rocky Mountain Prep, which has three charter schools in Denver and Aurora. In that role, she helps families — the majority of whom are Spanish-speaking — advocate for their children.

Molina said she followed the presidential election closely and even knocked doors for Hillary Clinton. Trump’s win, she said, was painful. “When I woke up Wednesday morning, it was hard not to feel that all of the people who voted for him had directly voted against me,” she said. “It was a lot of reminding myself that’s not necessarily the truth.”

Whatever happens with DACA, Molina said she’s confident she’ll be OK because the education she received in the United States opens doors for her here and abroad.

And frankly, she said, living with fear and anxiety is nothing new for her and millions of other undocumented immigrants. The difference now, she said, is that she’s willing to share her story. And because of that, Molina said she received several texts after Election Day from people pledging to stand with her. One of them was from a former student.

It read, in part, “You’ve never given up on yourself and never given up on your community. You’re a remarkable role model in my life,” Molina said. That, she said, was a call to action.

“I taught 120 young kids who are looking to me and saying, ‘Now what?’” Molina said. “I want to be able to show them it is possible to stand up for what you believe without hating other people.”

•••

Alejandro Fuentes spent his childhood in California. His mother and stepfather worked low-paying jobs and his family moved around a lot. In third grade, he went to seven different elementary schools.

Because he’d been identified as “gifted and talented,” he recalls that teachers were always pulling for him. For sixth grade, he was encouraged to apply to The Preuss School, a highly-rated San Diego charter school for low-income students.

Alejandro Fuentes. (Photo courtesy Alejandro Fuentes)
Alejandro Fuentes. (Photo courtesy Alejandro Fuentes)

His first two years there, Fuentes said he was the class clown. Then, when he was in eighth grade, his family was evicted from their home. It was a personal blow for Fuentes, but his advisory teacher took him under her wing, encouraging him to focus on school.

Although she didn’t share his experience, Ruiz said she showed him great empathy. “She was consistently there,” he said. “It helped to have somebody who seemed to care.”

School became Fuentes’s refuge. He’d leave his house at 6:30 a.m. and not get home until 7:30 p.m. He became a straight-A student involved in myriad after-school activities: National Honors Society, robotics club, lacrosse and cross country.

Though he knew he didn’t have papers or a Social Security number, he didn’t realize what that meant until it came time to apply to college. Again, his advisory teacher was there to help. He ended up going to Whitman College in Washington state on a full-ride scholarship.

He majored in psychology but in his senior year, he began to wonder if it was worth it. Facing life without a work permit, Fuentes had resigned himself to the fact that he’d probably graduate and return to California to work construction alongside his stepfather.

“I felt kind of hopeless because I knew how much my dad was getting underpaid because people know he’s undocumented,” he said.

What he really wanted to do was become a teacher. Teach for America had come to his college on a recruiting trip and Fuentes was intrigued by the idea of changing young people’s lives the way his advisory teacher had changed his.

But that was before DACA, and the organization had never had an undocumented teacher. He remembers being told, “we’re not sure we can take you, but please apply.”

Shortly thereafter, Obama announced the policy. Teach for America accepted Fuentes and placed him at DCIS at Ford, an elementary school in far northeast Denver. In the fall of 2013, Denver was the only city in the country that had agreed to take DACA teachers.

His first ever day of teaching, he shared his story with his students. “I found this quote … ‘Everything is hard before it’s easy.’ I relate it to that quote,” Fuentes says. He tells his students that if they believe they can overcome their obstacles, they will.

Now in his fourth year as a teacher in Denver, Fuentes recently accepted a new job teaching sixth-grade math at KIPP Montbello College Prep middle school. The day after the election, he said he showed up to school with tears in his eyes.

“At the beginning of every class, students were coming up to me and asking if anything was wrong,” he said. “So I figured it was as good a time as any to tell them my story, my fears of losing my job and not being able to stand in front of them and be the teacher I want to be.”

Fuentes said he worries about no longer being able to financially support his parents — he makes more than both of them combined — and about deportation.

On the one hand, Fuentes said he felt uncomfortable sharing his burden with his students. But on the other, he said he was comforted by their words. “It was a lot of, ‘Don’t worry, Mr. Fuentes. We won’t let anybody take you,’” he said.

Fuentes is struggling with what he would do if DACA were repealed. Would it be better to go into hiding? Or to continue speaking out? He said he’s leaning toward the latter.

“We tell our students that if you’re working hard enough and doing the best you possibly can and showing to everyone who you are and what you stand for, life could eventually work out for you,” he said. “And so I guess I’m trying to be an example of that advice I’ve given to my students: Put yourself out there and people will support you.”

•••

As a high school student in Tennessee, Carlos Ruiz wasn’t motivated. He had poor grades and a low ACT score. Knowing that he was undocumented, “I didn’t see the point of it,” he said.

When DACA was announced his freshman year at Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, he said it changed his whole outlook. Ruiz applied the very first day possible.

“DACA was an avenue for me to work hard and do what I wanted with that,” he said. “It made me feel in control and empowered.”

Carlos Ruiz. (Photo courtesy Carlos Ruiz)
Carlos Ruiz. (Photo courtesy Carlos Ruiz)

A history major, Ruiz decided he wanted to become a teacher. He said he hoped to convince teenagers who felt as hopeless as he had to stay the course. “You don’t know what’s going to change, you don’t know what’s going to happen,” he said.

He applied to Teach for America and was placed at an elementary school in Denver. Realizing his passion lie in working with high school students, Ruiz left the organization. This year, he’s a Spanish teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel, a charter high school in the northwest part of the city.

His students, the majority of whom are Latino, know his story. Ruiz said it’s a point of solidarity: Even though most of them were born here and are citizens, many have undocumented friends or family members. The day after the election was difficult, he said.

“There was a lot of anxiety in the building,” Ruiz said. But, he added, “as the day went on, I felt better and continue to feel better. I grew up without DACA. DACA is a relatively new development. It’s hard having tasted freedom and knowing it might be taken away. But you have to look at it like, whatever happens, I will be OK.”

Ruiz said he’d be lying if he said he hadn’t searched job websites in Mexico, a country he hasn’t stepped foot in since he was a child. But being undocumented and growing up surrounded by uncertainty about his future has taught him to focus on what he can control and not dwell on the rest — a lesson he hopes to pass on to his students.

“That’s the mentality I’ve reverted to: Hope for the best. Keep on staying level-headed for myself and for my students. And continue to speak about it in an educated way because I sincerely believe that when people hear our stories, they will be supportive and change will come.”

school access

Security measures at Aurora schools are supposed to protect kids, but are they scaring away some of their parents?

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Aurora Central High School students walk past the attendance office.

An additional layer of security screening in Aurora schools has raised concerns about whether a system meant to keep kids safe may be keeping away parents and other family members who are not in the country legally.

Beginning this fall, everyone who enters a school in Aurora is being asked to present ID so staff can check names and dates of birth against a public database of registered sex offenders.

Visitors may present a state-issued ID or other documents such as a passport or consulate card from their home country, district officials say.

In a climate of fear about increased crackdowns on immigration, asking for that kind of documentation can have a chilling effect, said Corrine Rivera-Fowler, a policy and civic engagement director with Padres & Jovenes Unidos, a nonprofit advocacy group for parents.

“There is a heightened awareness that the government cannot be trusted,” she said. “Now that a parent may have to come into a school and provide the school an ID, that’s only going to heighten the anxiety. Even if they present a passport or other document, in their mind that’s an admission that they don’t have a U.S. document. You feel like you’re exposing yourself.”

District officials say they are sensitive to the concerns, and have sought to clearly communicate how the system works and what it’s all about with principals and parents.

School officials in Aurora already have voiced their own concerns about the current immigration climate dissuading parents from filling out important forms — including applications for free and reduced priced lunches — or even keeping kids out of school completely.

The Aurora school board, like others across the country, responded earlier this year by passing a resolution written by community members restating existing policies for how the district deals with immigration officials.

By then, work was well underway on the new security system. The Aurora district finished rolling out the Raptor Technologies system at all its schools at the start of this school year. At least seven Aurora schools started piloting the system in 2015-2016. And some schools went out on their own to buy it before the district rolled it out.

The Raptor system is already in use across several other school districts, including the Cherry Creek School District and Adams 12 school district in Thornton.

In Aurora, concerns about the security system surfaced last week at a school board candidate forum when an anonymous audience member wrote a question about it on a notecard.

“There is a new security system in APS that requires visitors to present a government ID to enter a building,” the attendee wrote. “How will you ensure access for undocumented parents to schools?”

Most of the candidates taking part in the forum were unaware of the policy. In the room full of immigrants and refugee families listening through translators on headsets, all eight school board candidates attending raised concerns about a system that could keep undocumented parents out of schools. Barbara Yamrick, one of the nine candidates vying for four seats in November’s election didn’t attend.

“We have to change this system immediately,” said school board candidate Kevin Cox.

“I’ve got questions,” said candidate Marques Ivey. “This is something that would definitely be addressed and looked at.”

Greg Cazell, the director of security for Aurora schools, said the district has worked on rolling out the security system for four years.

“It was a huge concern throughout the process, making sure we didn’t disenfranchise that population,” Cazell said.

In August, the district sent letters to all principals explaining how the system works: Only the name and date of birth get stored. The information is only compared to the public database of registered sex offenders. No information is shared with law enforcement or immigration agencies. If a person is registered, they may be denied access to the school, but if the person is a parent of a child at a school, officials at the school are required to escort the person while in the building.

The district sent letters home to all families and made automated phone calls home in several languages. Officers from the district’s security team, including some who speak Spanish, also host meetings at schools to talk to parents about how backgrounds checks are run for volunteers and are taking the time to explain the security system too.

“Generally once it’s been explained, there are no concerns,” Cazell said. “But that’s a challenge for my department in general because we do have armed uniformed officers. We’re not here to remove anyone. Our job is school safety. We constantly want to make sure that message is getting out.”

At Virginia Court Elementary, school leaders talked to families about the new system at back to school night and have conversations about it when people walk into the school. The principal, Kim Pippenger, said parents have not raised issues about access for undocumented families.

“As people come in they wonder why — why do we have this new system?” Pippenger said. “Our answer is always about student safety. I really haven’t had anyone come in with this concern.”

Raquel Amador, a parent and leader with RISE, the nonprofit that hosted last week’s candidate forum, said concerns about the security system discussed at the forum may have given people the wrong impression. Amador also works as a secretary at Fulton Academy.

“Saying the schools are giving a hard time to parents is not true,” Amador said. “I can say this is a very secure system for our kids’ security. It doesn’t have any risk for parents.”

Still, local immigration advocates say it wouldn’t hurt for the district to be more explicit in explaining the new system to families.

Rivera-Fowler, of Padres & Jovenes, said she compared the immigration policies enacted by Denver Public Schools and Aurora Public Schools. She said the one in Aurora is not as explicit as it could be.

Denver’s immigration resolution states the district will do everything “in its lawful power” to protect students’ confidential information and ensure “students’ learning environments are not disrupted” by immigration enforcement actions.

Aurora’s immigration resolution states that “absent any applicable federal, state, or local law, regulation, ordinance or court decision,” the district “shall not disclose, without parental or guardian consent, the immigration status or other personally identifiable information of any student.”

“In DPS it was really clear the district does not collect or share immigration information. We tried really hard to make sure they say that over and over,” Rivera-Fowler said. “It’s all about building trust, so explicitly putting that into a policy and then making sure it’s communicated over and over again is necessary.”

Cazell said his office has not been made aware of any parents losing access to a school. He can, however point to instances where the system is doing its job, he said.

In one recent case, a man entered a school and was identified as a registered sex offender. The man had no child at the school. Staff then learned he had tagged along with a parent who was visiting the school. He was denied access to the school and asked to wait outside while the parent went inside.

“It’s about knowing who is coming in our schools and making sure they’re safe to be around our students,” Cazell said. “And really to track who is in the building.”

Uncharted waters

From passionate to politics-free, here’s how Colorado school districts responded to Trump’s DACA decision

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver students walk to a rally September 5, 2017 to protest President Trump's decision to end DACA.

Even before the Trump administration announced the rollback of an Obama-era program that provides protections to young undocumented immigrants, Tom Boasberg didn’t hold back.

The longtime Denver Public Schools superintendent fired off one pre-emptive statement saying that ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, would “cruelly rip the American dream” from young immigrants’ grasp. He joined other civic leaders for a news conference under the Capitol dome to call for the program’s preservation.

When DACA’s imminent demise was announced Tuesday, the DPS communications staff was ready with a statement, in both English and Spanish, decrying the move as “shortsighted, heartless and harmful.”

In Aurora Public Schools, Superintendent Rico Munn, a lawyer and former head of the State Department of Regulatory Agencies, conferred with staff about a more measured response.

Two days after the Trump White House put DACA on notice, APS emailed the school community a newsletter reiterating district policy about immigration enforcement and linking to a school board resolution passed earlier this year meant to allay community fears. The district statement did not mention DACA, nor was it signed by Munn or anyone personally.

The contrasting responses – from passionate and personal to informational and politics-free – provide a window into how school districts view their responsibilities when a divisive national policy change carries profound implications for many Colorado students and their families.

In Colorado’s urban, suburban and rural areas, officials in districts with large numbers of immigrant students are attempting to support kids at a trying time without over-promising security they may not be able to guarantee. How districts respond hinges on intensely local factors, from the political climate to leadership style and school board makeup.

“This is uncharted waters,” said Kathy Escamilla, director of the BUENO Center for Multicultural Education at the University of Colorado Boulder. “… It’s incumbent upon all school districts to say ‘This issue is complex, it’s not just legal and illegal.’ And they need to inform their communities about the complexities about dealing with these thorny issues.”

Roughly 800,000 people in the U.S., including nearly 17,300 people in Colorado, are enrolled in DACA. Begun in 2012, the program offers work permits and temporary reprieves from deportation to undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as young children.

Trump has given Congress six months to tackle immigration issues broadly before DACA is undone. He also has indicated that he may act on DACA if Congress does not.

Susana Cordova, deputy superintendent of Denver Public Schools, said leaders of the 92,000-student district felt they had no choice but to speak out.

“The conditions have been thrust on us,” she said Friday.

Cordova added that DPS leaders believe “this is a fundamental moral obligation we have to support our Latino students in general and in particular, take a stance on what we believe is a very misguided, poorly thought-out and detrimental decision.”

Some Denver school principals also spoke out publicly. A group of more than 90 school leaders wrote an opinion piece in The Denver Post calling on Congress to pass the 2017 DREAM Act to provide permanent protections for immigrants.

“Principals have real power in communities,” said author James Cryan, who is founder and CEO of the Rocky Mountain Prep charter school network in Denver and Aurora. The group, he said, wanted to use that power “to stand with folks who, in many cases, … don’t feel safe.”

The Aurora Public Schools statement sought to tamp down concerns about imminent immigration actions and said the “safety and wellbeing of our students and staff is our top priority.”

Munn said in an interview that there is no “right response” to news like DACA’s rollback, and that it varies by community. Asked about the more pointed statement from Boasberg and DPS, Munn said neither he nor the district has a track record of putting out such statements.

“We have tried to stay focused on serving our kids and making sure our kids and our families know at a very practical level what the impact is on their lives,” he said. “For us, it’s important not to be a distraction in that communication. In other communities, it makes all the sense in the world to handle it differently depending on how you relate to that community.”

Judith Padilla, an Aurora mother of three, said Friday she didn’t receive the district’s communication on immigration this week, but wishes she had more resources from the schools.

“All of us need more information about what help our schools can or can’t offer us,” Padilla said. “They need to support everyone. I am worried about what’s going to happen.”

Other suburban Denver districts, many of them with large and growing Hispanic populations, also gave a variety of responses.

In Jeffco Public Schools, Superintendent Jason Glass was quick to post on his blog about DACA, striking a tone that falls somewhere between Denver’s and Aurora’s statements.

Glass noted the opportunities DACA provides to undocumented students “who have much to contribute to our community, state, and nation.” He also linked to more information and a “do and don’t list” for educators.

In an email to Chalkbeat, Glass expanded on the district’s strategy, noting that leaders must take into account residents, boards and community values in deciding if and how to engage on issues with political dimensions.

“For Jeffco, that meant reassuring potentially impacted members of our community that our schools remain open and welcoming to them, and that we would monitor and work with our Congressional delegation in an effort to not limit opportunities for our children,” he said. “In other communities, that engagement can mean something else.”

Westminster Public Schools sent an internal communication last week to principals with “key talking points,” and reminders to staff of policy on social media, teaching controversial topics and interactions with immigration officials.

“We do not collect or share information on a student’s legal status and that will not change,” the memo said, echoing the message of many other school districts. “Westminster Public Schools values ethnic and language diversity in our district and we view diversity as a strength.”

Javier Abrego, the superintendent of the Adams 14 School District in Commerce City, put out a more pointed statement — in English and Spanish — on DACA on Wednesday.

“To be sure, the elimination of DACA will not only have a dramatic economic impact on our state and nation, it will have devastating impacts on our schools and communities,” he wrote. “Our community and schools will lose employees, coaches and school support staff. Our educational systems are already in dire need of great support and resources; the elimination of DACA just compounds an already alarming situation.”

Abrego also joined a handful of other superintendents in calling for Congress to act.

In Greeley-Evans School District 6, Superintendent Deirdre Pilch put out a one-paragraph statement Tuesday acknowledging that changes in DACA will “cause worry and concern for some of our students, families and our own staff.” It concluded by encouraging families to voice their concerns to national elected officials and expressing hope that Congress will find a solution.

Earlier this year Pilch was one of several Colorado school and district leaders who signed a letter to federal officials in support of DACA.

But not every district leader felt compelled to speak out about DACA this week.

In St Vrain Valley School District, where 30 percent of the district’s 32,000 students are Hispanic, district officials released no statement or resolution on DACA.

“I don’t know what a piece of paper would do,” said Superintendent Don Haddad. “For us, we don’t change our approach with kids and our community every time a politician says something. We care about our kids 24/7, every day of the week.”

Rural Colorado is far more diverse than most other U.S. rural areas, with significant Latino populations in some areas. Districts there, too, are grappling with responding to DACA.

In the Roaring Fork School District, Superintendent Rob Stein released a one-page statement critical of the DACA announcement on Tuesday — the district’s first day of school.

In a separate letter to district staff and board members, Stein acknowledged that immigrant rights is a political issue and said everyone should make their own choices about how to get involved. “At the same time,” he wrote, “we have a safe haven resolution as a school district that states, in part, ‘We will act where we have influence and make a difference wherever we can.’”

The 1,000-student Lake County school district has yet to send any formal communication about its stance on DACA to parents, said high school principal Ben Cairns. Instead, they’ve deferred to the community’s Latino organizations.

However, the high school is encouraging students to participate in the immigration policy debate. On Tuesday, about two dozen students in three vans traveled to a rally on Denver’s Auraria Campus.

Cairns said he’s aware of potential backlash from other community members but that hasn’t stopped him from supporting the needs of his students.

“It’s complicated,” he said. “But it’s our role to help kids process these big moments in their lives.”