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DACA Is An Education Issue, Argue Ohio's Teachers

Roberts Academy teacher Tiana Gilbert interacts with students during her 8th grade English class.

“Am I going to get deported? Am I going to be sent back? What do I do if immigration comes to my house? What if they come to Roberts?”

These are the questions 25-year-old Tiana Gilbert grapples with on a frequent basis from her 7th and 8th grade English students.

Gilbert teaches at Roberts Academy on Cincinnati’s west side, where nearly two-thirds of the student population is Hispanic. A large number of those students are either the children of immigrants or immigrants themselves.

“I get really positive things, but I also get the things that absolutely tear at your heart,” Gilbert said. “And to know that 12-year-olds have gone through these things is absolutely heartbreaking.”

Gilbert said the frequency of those difficult questions has increased since President Trump announced in September he’d phase out DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and stories about immigration enforcement have filled the headlines.

Viridiana Carrizales, managing director for DACA at Teach for America, said that’s why her organization created a program to train teachers to deal with difficult questions as they arise.

The TFA training provides access to relevant state and federal immigration laws, resources for students, and tips on how to make classrooms feel welcoming and safe. Gilbert, a former TFA member who now mentors incoming participants, took the training this summer.

“For me, in that training, I just had faces coming up in my head of my students,” Gilbert says. “Everything our trainer was talking about, I had a story for a student that was part of that statistic.”

The push to inform teachers about DACA and immigration laws has transformed in recent months to a push for advocacy. On Wednesday, representatives of TFA, the National Education Association, the American Federation of Teachers, and others will gather on Capitol Hill to urge lawmakers to take action and put the DREAM Act – the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act – to a vote.

Introduced in several forms since 2001, the bill would essentially make DACA law, granting a reprieve from deportation for registered immigrants who were brought to the country illegally at a young age.

Both of Ohio’s Senators, Democrat Sherrod Brown and Republican Rob Portman, have said they’d support the bill, even though they sit on opposite sides of the aisle.

“I think we ought to resolve this situation and do it legislatively,” Portman said. “I don’t mind the fact that it’s been thrown to Congress because I do think that it was not Constitutional to do it through an executive action.”

President Obama created DACA through executive action in 2012, allowing undocumented people of a certain age, who have not committed certain crimes, and who entered the country by a certain date to register.

When Trump announced he would not reauthorize the program, he placed the burden on Congress to extend the protections for so-called DREAMers – the group of undocumented young people covered under the program – through legislative action.

“These DREAMers are our students and I believe that as educators we need to do everything possible to see that they have the same access to opportunities that all students do,” said Becky Higgins, president of the Ohio Education Association.

Her group often lobbies for or against some of the nation’s biggest education issues, and because hundreds if not thousands of Ohio students could be impacted by the law, Higgins said, they’re taking a stance on the DREAM Act as well.

The Migration Policy Institute, a nonprofit, Washington, D.C.-based think tank, says nearly 2 million people in the U.S. would be eligible for DACA-status. One in five are children under the age of 15.

Ashton Marra covers the Capitol for West Virginia Public Radio and can be heard weekdays on West Virginia Morning, the station’s daily radio news program. Ashton can also be heard Sunday evenings as she brings you state headlines during NPR’s weekend edition of All Things Considered. She joined the news team in October of 2012.