Rutgers University student holds a sign that reads "Education not deportation."

Column: I’m a teacher, a ‘Dreamer’ and I know why my students are scared

Editor’s Note: Throughout the 2016 presidential election, President Donald Trump vowed to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program created under the Obama Administration. DACA provides temporary deportation stays and work permits to more than 750,0000 undocumented immigrants, people brought to the United States illegally as children.

Katherine Huete Galeano is one such young person. She teaches junior high special education at a charter school in the Gage Park community of Chicago. Huete Galeano is in her second year of Teach for America, which has 100 undocumented members teaching 6,000 students across 11 states. Huete Galeano says Teach for America was one of the few places that recognized her skill set and life experiences that better allow her to relate to her students, many of whom share the same fears she did as a child.

The questions from my seventh and eighth graders started during the 2016 presidential election. Will my parents be taken away? Will I have to move? Will you not work here next year?

Their tears came Nov. 9. Some teachers didn’t understand why the kids were so upset, but I did. The questions continued amid mixed signals from the Trump administration on immigration and DACA and my students’ anxiety became more real. Will my parents not be there after school? Will I become a foster kid? Will I not come to school here anymore?

teachersloungeAs an educator, I believe no child should have to live a day worrying like that. As a Dreamer, I carried that worry for years.

It was a morning like any other when my family was separated. My dad woke up early for his construction job, started his truck in the driveway and noticed a van parked nearby. The driver said they were police officers looking for one of our neighbors. My dad invited the officers into the house to wait.

My sister was getting dressed for school. My mom was eating cereal at the dining room table. I was in the shower. The next thing I remember is my mom banging on the bathroom door, telling me I had to say goodbye. The last time I saw my dad, I was in a towel. He was in handcuffs. Immigration and Customs Enforcement had an order of deportation for a man three doors down. But when my dad couldn’t produce documents, they took him away instead.

Life got a lot harder for my family after my dad was sent to Nicaragua. My mom became a single parent supporting two kids. We moved in with my aunt’s family, and I got a fast food job to help with expenses. I didn’t have anyone to confide in about the separation, so I coped by being busy all the time. I went to high school then straight to work, came home at 11 p.m., did my homework, and slept. On days I didn’t work, I was involved in school activities. I just wanted to avoid being at home.

My sophomore year at the University of Wisconsin, my life changed dramatically again, this time for the better. President Obama established Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and as an immigrant brought here as a child, I applied and received DACA status. I was finally able to get a driver’s license and work legally, and I no longer had to worry about being picked up on the way to class and deported to a country I’ve never known.

I found a position as a bilingual community educator for a rape crisis center. There I answered my calling to educate middle school kids. As graduation approached, I started looking for employment options. DACA was still new, and Teach For America was one of the few organizations that believed my background would be valuable to students. And I was eager to be the bilingual, bicultural counselor that I missed having when I was in school.

Today, I’m a special educator on the southwest side of Chicago. My charter school serves a predominantly Latinx (i.e. a gender-inclusive way of referring to people of Latin American descent) community, and I am open with students about my DACA status. The president’s executive orders on border security, proposed immigrant travel bans and arrests of DACA recipients have all of us – teachers, children and parents – on edge.

To ensure students keep coming to class, my school network has declared sanctuary status. I joined other teachers to lead a “know your rights” campaign so our families know how to resist separations that destabilize their homes and our schools. When a parent is deported, it’s almost worse than if a parent has died. Deportation is sudden. It has immediate and lasting mental health and economic impacts. For many students, the separation is a secret they are too scared or embarrassed to share.

A seventh grader recently confided in me that his dad was deported, and his mom is not sure she can sustain the household for him and his sister. While he is a citizen, his mother is undocumented. He worries that she could be detained while he’s at school, and he’ll be left alone. He was designated as a special education student and given an Individual Education Plan designed for students with emotional disturbance. Even as I work with him, I question this diagnosis. How is he supposed to concentrate on a novel if he’s thinking about his dad being taken away and afraid that his mom is next? How do we provide him the right care?

The sad fact is that even under DACA, parents who have sought a better life for their children in the states do not qualify for any relief, and families continue to be separated. I believe we need immigration policies that honor families and the stability they bring to our schools and communities.

The last time I saw my dad, I was a freshman in high school. My seventh grader will miss his dad even longer. Our shared backgrounds help me be a role model, but I cannot replace his father.