Special report: How DACA put these Austin teachers in the classroom

Feb 01, 2018

Karen Reyes counts along verbally and through sign language as her five prekindergarten students jump in place on a recent Monday morning. Most of the children hop with great effort — so much so, some tumble over in a fit of giggles. Reyes laughs too as she often does in the classroom.

“This is the best profession,” said Reyes, a special-education teacher to hearing-impaired children at Lucy Read Pre-Kindergarten School in North Austin.

Reyes loves her job, and she’s good at it — an evaluation taped to the door of her classroom says as much — but she’s not sure she’ll have her job for much longer.

She’s an immigrant who has been allowed to work legally in the United States, shielded from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. But the program is set to expire next month, and Reyes’ DACA status, which must be renewed every two years, expires in August.

Enacted by President Barack Obama in 2012, DACA has offered protections to 800,000 young immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally as children. In September, President Donald Trump, citing what he called Obama’s executive overreach, said he would shut down the program by March 5, leaving the matter to Congress to resolve.

RELATED: DACA recipients renew protections while they can

The issue has emerged as a key sticking point in negotiations over an immigration and border security deal in Congress, even as opinion polls show nearly 4 in 5 Americans support the program. After a three-day government shutdown over the issue last month, Republican leaders promised a vote to codify DACA protections if Congress doesn’t reach a broad immigration deal by the next government funding deadline on Thursday.

Trump recently said he supported making DACA protections permanent, even calling for a path to citizenship for DACA recipients, but in return he wants curbs to legal immigration and billions of dollars for a border wall.

DACA recipients are often viewed as students, but an estimated 382,400 of them work, including 8,800 as teachers, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

If DACA ends, Texas — which chronically struggles with a shortage of bilingual teachers — could lose an estimated 1,600 education professionals, most of whom speak Spanish, according to the institute.

Central Texas public school officials said they would have to terminate employees who obtained work permits under DACA once their status expires. But they also said they don’t track which employees are DACA recipients, nor does the Texas Education Agency.

“It is the diversity of our community that makes our work possible because at the end of the day, all are welcome in AISD,” said Reyne Telles, spokesman for the Austin school district.

Ken Zarifis, head of the teacher union Education Austin, said if DACA protections end, teachers should continue to work if they’re still employed with the school district, and the union can connect teachers with attorneys and resources to try to help them keep their jobs.

The American-Statesman spoke to three of at least a dozen Austin school district teachers who are DACA recipients.

Their lives share similar trajectories. They were elementary school age or younger when they immigrated to Texas because their parents wanted better lives for them. Their parents stressed getting a good education, and a few educators were instrumental in guiding them toward college. Finding a job with their college degrees was the ultimate American dream.

None of the women said she could imagine moving back to her native country.

Here are the stories of Reyes, 29; Areli Zarate, 26, a Spanish teacher at Austin High School; and Yehimi Saquiché, 29, a bilingual prekindergarten teacher at Padrón Elementary School.  

Karen Reyes teaches her morning class to hearing-impaired children at Lucy Read Pre-Kindergarten School in North Austin. RESHMA KIRPALANI / AMERICAN-STATESMAN Photo: American-Statesman Staff

‘On the phone crying’

Born in Tampico, Tamaulipas, Karen Reyes and her mother first came to San Antonio when she was 2 years old. They returned to Mexico each summer to visit family and renew their tourist visa to reenter the United States.

“What my mom would do is she’d make sure we crossed the border really late at night so I’d be really sleepy so I wouldn’t accidentally reveal that we were actually living in the United States. My mom and a couple of my cousins even tried to make me memorize the Mexican national anthem in case (U.S. border authorities) asked me because they would do that,” Reyes said.

After five years of crossing back and forth, Reyes and her mom stayed on the north side of the border.

Reyes learned English from “Sesame Street” and Barney on television and enrolled in a high-performing elementary school in San Antonio. Even though the family moved around a lot, Reyes’ mom, who cleaned houses, made sure she stayed at one school.

Reyes’ mom kept her daughter close because she feared deportation. Even staying at a friend’s house overnight was too much of a risk. Other than that, Reyes said she led a pretty normal childhood, playing sports at the YMCA, joining Girl Scouts, learning to play the violin and participating in the school marching band.

It wasn’t until her sophomore year of high school that Reyes fully realized she lacked legal immigration status. Her mom didn’t want her to go to on a school trip to South Padre Island because it was too close to the Mexican border and to immigration enforcement officials.

“You don’t have papers,” Reyes recalls her mom saying.

Realizing she was living in the United States illegally threw her dreams of college into uncertainty.

“I always said I wanted to be a child and adolescent psychologist, but I knew that going forward was going to be a whole lot harder. At that time, I didn’t know anyone else who had already gone through the path of being undocumented and going through higher education. It was a lot of anxiety — what was I going to do?” Reyes said.

RELATED: Life in limbo for more than 100,000 DACA recipients in Texas

A guidance counselor ultimately helped her navigate her way into community college and a family friend helped pay for her tuition at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she earned a bachelor’s degree. Reyes enrolled at the deaf education graduate program at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, even though she knew she wouldn’t be able to work as a teacher after graduation.

But then DACA was enacted.

“It was June 15. I was driving from picking up a school book and my mom calls me and she said, ‘pull over right now.’ So I pull over in a parking lot of a Taco Cabana or a Las Palapas and she said, ‘President Obama just announced this. This is what this means and I just got you a lawyer.’ This was 11:30 a.m. We were both on the phone crying. It was just so powerful,” Reyes said.

Months later, Reyes got a Social Security card — a moment she described as becoming visible — a work permit and a driver’s license. She earned a master’s degree and landed her first teaching job in Austin.

Until a year ago, very few people knew Reyes wasn’t in the country legally. It was only when Trump was elected president that she felt compelled to “come out” and reveal her status through a Facebook post. She got a lot of support, helping empower her to ramp up her activism and even persuading her mom, who had taught Reyes to fear too much attention, to join her at immigration rallies at the Capitol.

Reyes said she still has the same anxiety she had when she was a 17-year-old girl unsure about her college dreams. With the uncertain future of DACA protections, Reyes doesn’t know if she should renew her contract with the school district in April for the following school year, if she should sign another lease at her apartment complex or move back to San Antonio.

“I don’t think the outcome of me losing DACA is as painful as knowing that I won’t be able to renew and be able to teach anymore. Sounds a little cliché but I love teaching,” Reyes said.

Yehimi Saquiché, 29, is a prekindergarten teacher at Padrón Elementary School. A native of Guatemala, she said she identifies with the struggles of her students and their families. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN Photo: American-Statesman Staff

‘I’m going to college, period’

Yehimi Saquiché said she has to be in command of her 17 prekindergarteners or else they’d run all over her. During a recent Friday morning, she was showing her class how to measure a chair, a bear and a book with a set of colorful plastic chains. Any time her students’ attention started to drift, she was quick to raise her voice and snap them back into focus.

But she also knows how to be soft with the children — “Gracias, corazón” and “Gracias, mi amor” are among the ways she addresses her students. It’s intentional, she said.

“Especially in pre-K, it’s the first time they’re in school and I can still be on the motherly side of teaching. I get to be the bridge of them entering this new world,” said Saquiché, who teaches dual-language prekindergarten at Padrón Elementary School. “When I came to the U.S., I didn’t experience that. I didn’t know the language, and my teacher threw me in there assuming I could survive without any help.”

Saquiché said she borrows from her experience as an unauthorized immigrant in her approach to teaching.

From a poor town outside of Guatemala City, Saquiché’s parents immigrated to the United States in the late 1990s, leaving her and her two brothers in the care of relatives for a year and a half. When her parents had enough money to send for them, an uncle ferried the children through Mexico and across the border to Brownsville, where a woman was to drive them to Austin. Saquiché said she remembers almost not finishing the trip after the woman changed her fees at the last minute, charging her parents $9,000 instead of the $3,000 that had been agreed upon.

RELATED: Texas immigrant advocates denounce Trump’s ‘divisive rhetoric’

Ten-year-old Saquiché and her brothers reunited with their parents within days, but it took years for her parents to pay off the debt owed to those who helped them cross the border illegally. Her mother worked from 8 a.m. to midnight as a cleaner at Austin-area businesses while her father worked from 5 p.m. until the following morning doing the same. Saquiché said her parents never allowed their children to work, instead telling them to focus on school.

“So many people say it wasn’t my decision and my parents brought me to the U.S. without my consent. But I know had I stayed in Guatemala, I would never have gone to college. I would have been pregnant at like 12 or 13,” Saquiché said. “I didn’t want to stay.”

She first entertained the idea of college in the seventh grade at Burnet Middle School. In the ninth grade at Lanier High School, she started learning to write college admissions essays and visiting campuses. “By 10th grade, I was like I’m going to college, period,” she said.

Saquiché was accepted to five colleges. Although she wanted to go to Baylor University, she knew she couldn’t afford the tuition, and she wanted to stay close to her family and her church off Rundberg Lane, where she goes at least three times a week.

She graduated from UT-Austin in 2011 with an education degree, but because she couldn’t obtain a work permit, she worked at McDonald’s. Even after DACA took effect, she stayed at McDonald’s, where she had become a manager and was making about $30,000 a year. It wasn’t until she was working an overnight shift alone in Bee Cave during the summer of 2014 that she realized she was meant for more and within weeks got a teaching job at the Austin school district.

Saquiché has no desire to leave the Austin school district any time soon and prefers to work in Northeast Austin where she grew up. She said she knows the struggles of her students and their families.

Last year, amid immigration raids in Austin, she helped her students cope with heightened anxieties.

“I had a little girl last year during the raids that came to class one day and said, ‘Ms. Saquiché, my dad might not be home because police might pick him up.’ It just broke my heart because a 5-year-old should be worrying about her dolls, about her Legos, her Shopkins — not her dad not being home when she gets there.”

Saquiché, whose DACA status ends next February, doesn’t fear deportation. She believes God will make everything work out.

Zarifis, the head of Education Austin and one of Saquiché’s former teachers, said Saquiché is the kind of teacher the Austin school district needs.

“She wanted to see what she could do for others. It’s no surprise to me that she wanted to become a teacher,” Zarifis said.

Poverty led Areli Zarate’s family to immigrate illegally from Mexico to Austin almost 2o years ago. The 26-year-old Austin High School teacher isn’t shy about sharing with her students about how DACA has helped her. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN Photo: American-Statesman Staff

‘We have come so far’

Areli Zarate couldn’t hold back tears as she recounted her early childhood growing up in Acapulco, Guerrero.

“We have come so far,” Zarate said before grabbing tissues from the corner of her Austin High School classroom. “We live day by day and we never think back about what it used to be. It hits me — how poor we were.”

Surrounded by wealthy tourists in the popular beach town, her dad and mom stood in stark contrast. Her father worked in construction and her mother resold items she found in landfills. What little money her parents made went to pay for treating her twin brothers’ asthma. Even food was hard to come by, Zarate said.

“It was very rare that we ate meat, and whenever we got a piece of meat, we would put it in our tortilla and pull it out and make another tortilla with the same meat. We would also sneak into our neighbor’s yards and steal fruit because we couldn’t afford fruit,” she said.

Her mom joined her dad in Austin first before sending for 8-year-old Zarate and her brothers. Zarate said she doesn’t like to talk about her trip across the border. The trip took a few days, she said, and she remembers being dropped off at the corner of St. Johns Avenue and Cameron Road, across the street from Reagan High School. Big Macs and a pizza were their first meal in America, and the kids hated it.

Zarate learned early to fear the police because she thought they could send her and her family back to Mexico. She had to translate for her parents at doctor appointments and cared for her younger brother when her parents worked.

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Zarate said she acted out at school because of her extra responsibilities at home. She got suspended and grades never really mattered. College only became a possibility when she was told during her junior year at Reagan High School that she was at the top of the class. Even as she juggled jobs at a Cheddar’s restaurant and Burlington Coat Factory, she graduated as salutatorian and was accepted to UT-Austin.

“I was going to be the first to ever go to college so that was a big moment for our family — to think we came undocumented, and we had to learn the language and it was a struggle,” Zarate said. Her mom had dropped out after elementary school.

Zarate teaches Spanish and a college readiness program for teens with backgrounds similar to hers. When she closes her classroom door, she becomes more confident, she said. She wants to set an example for her students.

That’s why she’s not shy about sharing with her students that she lacks legal immigration status. Even though she worries about losing her job — her DACA status ends in October 2019 — and about her parents being deported, she said it’s important to turn her life into a lesson for her students.

“This has given me more strength to tell them that education matters and that I want them to get educated and to not waste your chance. If you have the proper documentation, I need you to get it together in high school right now and go to college and have a better future,” she said.