Just days before the Thanksgiving break, teacher Claudia Jacobo Martinez still had her students’ undivided attention as she outlined an assignment: “You are a pilgrim today.”
She told students to pen a postcard to friends about life in the Plymouth Colony, including the need to flee England and the struggles of surviving a harsh winter with the help of new friends.
“We are not talking about you,” Jacobo explained. “Think about who you are going to write to.”
The themes she is teaching — religious freedom, new beginnings in a foreign land and pursuit of the American Dream — are very real to Jacobo and her students.
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Jacobo was smuggled from Mexico to Texas when she was 12 and started out as a student in the Fort Worth school district’s International Newcomer Academy, where she now teaches reading to seventh-grade immigrant students.
“I know our kids here,” Jacobo said. “This is the first stop at a United States school.”
She graduated second in her class from Fort Worth Polytechnic High School and went on to earn two college degrees.
“Claudia was an excellent and dedicated student,” said Susan Hensley, an ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher from Polytechnic. “She was always helpful to other students so they could be successful.”
Despite her passion and commitment to teaching, Jacobo isn’t sure how long she’ll keep her job.
She is among an estimated 8,800 educators and library workers in the United States who are teaching thanks to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, according to the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Migration Policy Institute. There are about 690,000 DACA holders across the country.
But with the Trump Administration planning to abolish the program started by President Barack Obama in 2012, many educators who are protected by DACA are concerned about their future.
And while Jacobo understands what’s at stake, she refuses to let it define who she is — or what she has achieved.
“I’m not thinking about, ‘When is the last day?’ ” she said.
Hopeful for ‘resolution in Washington’
The Fort Worth school district has 76 employees who are DACA holders, including 27 teachers, according to records obtained by the Stat-Telegram through an open records request. The district has 5,816 full-time teachers, according to the 2016-2017 annual report. Other staff members who participate in DACA include tutors, office assistants, family community liaisons and teacher assistants.
The Dallas school district has 68 DACA employees, including 36 teachers.
Several Tarrant-area school districts, from Birdville to Hurst-Euless-Bedford to Northwest, indicated that they either didn’t track teachers on the DACA program or didn’t have any on staff.
The Texas Education Agency does not collect information on the number of DACA teachers in Texas.
Fort Worth Superintendent Kent Scribner, who has pledged his support of DACA students and teachers, said the issue is significant considering that the school district serves a diverse student population that is 63 percent Hispanic.
“It’s our effort to find both quality and diversity in the teaching ranks and these teachers, we have found them to be successful and hope there can be a resolution in Washington so they can continue to serve our students,” Scribner said.
Dallas school district spokeswoman Sandra Verduzco said staff is working with attorneys to determine the next steps for the employees who could soon lose their DACA protection.
“The work that each of them accomplishes, whether they work in or outside the classroom, is vital in preparing our students to become the future leaders,” Verduzco said.
In September, when the Trump administration announced the program’s phaseout, there were an estimated 7,700 people in DACA in Tarrant County. Since then, people who have relied on the program to live, work and study legally have started falling out of status, experts said. The Migration Policy Institute predicts an average of 915 DACA holders will fall out of status per day if Congress doesn’t make a move by a March 6 deadline.
Many young immigrants in DACA call themselves “Dreamers,” a term that alludes to past legislative efforts for immigration reform that failed in Congress.
The DACA program, which is different from the so-called DREAM Act, was implemented by the Obama administration in August 2012. The rolling two-year program allowed undocumented immigrants, who were brought to the United States as children, an opportunity to attend school and work in the United States without threat of deportation. Recipients typically re-applied for the program as their two years neared expiration.
Not a path to citizenship
The program has been described by many immigration advocates as a temporary fix that many hoped would lead to a permanent reform that would include paths for legalization.
But while DACA does not provide a clear path to citizenship, it has provided a path for work, said Jacobo, one of five Mexican-born siblings who were brought to this country for economic opportunity. Her father had already been living and working in North Texas when the family paid a smuggler to bring her, two sisters and her mother through Eagle Pass in 1999.
Jacobo didn’t speak English when she started classes at the International Newcomer Academy alongside refugees from Bosnia and Vietnam. She made it her goal to learn English.
Jacobo said her mother pushed her to succeed in school.
She listened, and enrolled in the AVID college prep program, took advanced classes and played soccer.
In 2004, Jacobo graduated second in her class at Polytechnic. She said she paid for her undergraduate degree at Texas Woman’s University in Denton. Later, she paid for a graduate degree at Texas Wesleyan University.
In 2008, after graduating from college, she wondered if she would ever become a teacher because she lacked immigration status.
Without a Social Security card, she couldn’t be a teacher.
She worked in restaurants and other jobs — “jobs I didn’t like, but needed.”
She grew frustrated and began researching graduate programs, eventually deciding to become certified to teach English outside the United States. Perhaps the Middle East, Canada or France, she said.
‘To me, education is everything’
But then in 2012, friends told her about DACA.
“Claudia, have you heard what President Obama is doing?” Jacobo said, recalling her reaction when she read the news: “Oh wow, it is true.”
After applying and being approved for the program, she was finally able to teach in the country she loves.
“To me, education is everything,” Jacobo said.
Allies of the DACA program have been walking out of classrooms, holding protests at the offices of lawmakers and pushing support through social media with hashtags such as: “#CleanDreamAct.”
The hashtag refers to efforts calling for lawmakers to pass legislation that allows young immigrants a permanent path to legalization.
In Fort Worth, the school board passed resolutions in support of immigrants and DACA.
DACA teachers also have support from Teach for America, which recruited teachers under the program to better serve immigrant students, said Kathryn Phillips, managing director for the nonprofit that places young teachers in at-risk schools.
Teach for America also submitted declarations in two civil suits in California and New York challenging the DACA repeal.
“We are hoping that lawmakers will vote on the Dream Act in December before they go on recess. Otherwise we will have some teachers who may not be able to finish the school year” because they were unable to renew their DACA permits by Trump’s October deadline, Phillips said.
Teach For America has 6,400 corps members who are teaching across the country, including 95 who are DACA recipients. In Texas, there are 60 Teach for America educators who rely on the DACA program. Twenty-five educators in the Dallas-Fort Worth region are either currently part of Teach for America’s corps or alumni.
‘These are my people’
Jacobo has allies among her co-workers.
Felicia Alba, an eighth-grade teacher at the International Newcomer Academy, is an American-born daughter of an immigrant and a DACA activist. She said she is using her voting power and her energy to push lawmakers to act to help Jacobo and others who are working.
“This is my culture,” Alba said. “These are my people.”
Alba said she wants a bipartisan solution similar to the amnesty program that came during President Ronald Reagan’s administration.
Hensley, the Polytechnic teacher, said she taught many immigrant students, who like Jacobo hoped for an American Dream.
“It would be a great loss, not only to our district, but to the United States to lose students like Claudia who contribute so much to our country,” Hensley said.
Samara Chalott, a DACA holder who teaches second grade in the Dallas school district, said many Dreamers were inspired to become teachers by strong teachers who believed in their immigrant students.
Chalott, who graduated in 2010 from Dallas’ Trinidad Garza Early College High School at Mountain View College, said she will fight the political fight alongside other allies so Congress will help her and fellow Dreamers.
“Being in the movement gave me hope,” Chalott said.
Jacobo said she has faith in Congress, but if lawmakers fail to act, she will teach in Canada or France. In the meantime, she is also focused on her students.
“Everything is possible,” Jacobo said. “Yes, they might not think that way right now because they are only 12 and there are other things in their heads, but just letting them know: ‘Yes, I was in your place. ... There is a chance for you.’ ”
Jacobo said she wants to push her students to do their best and so that college isn’t just a dream.
“I teach kids who are like me,” said Jacobo. “I have an opportunity to give back to this country what they gave me.”
Staff writer Sandra Engelland contributed to this report.
This report contains material from the Star-Telegram archives.