Dreamers need not apply

City’s teacher shortage overlooks the undocumented.

In the final part of a series on the undocumented workers of Charlotte, Amanda Holpuch of The Guradian discovers how threats against Daca could pose serious consequences for schools, amid a nationwide teacher shortage.

Madai Zamora is about to become a teacher. But with weeks to go before she completes her degree in Charlotte, North Carolina, she is unsure whether her students will be in the United States – or in Mexico.

Zamora, 23, who was brought from Mexico as a child, is one of the more than 752,000 people across the US to receive temporary deportation relief through a programme called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca).

Daca, which went into effect in 2012, gives undocumented young people the right to work and go to school in the US. But after Donald Trump promised to cancel Daca, even people with temporary deportation relief feel unsure about their future in the US.

“I feel like I have been working so hard for the possibility of it all being taken away,” Zamora says.

With an undocumented population feeling increasingly threatened since Trump’s election – with workers vanishing from building sites and a food industry under increasing stress – the education system is also feeling the strain.

Trump didn’t repeal Daca on day one, but recipients who came to the US as children, and are known as “Dreamers”, have been arrested and detained by immigration officials. The White House has not announced its plans for the programme, which gives them access to the data of hundreds of thousands of young people who were brought to the US illegally.

Amid the uncertainty, one thing is clear: regardless of what happens with Daca, Zamora won’t be able to teach in the city of Charlotte – or anywhere in North Carolina, her home for the past 10 years. Like the majority of states, North Carolina doesn’t grant teaching licences to undocumented people, including those with Daca.

What makes the situation even more desperate is that Charlotte actually has a teacher shortage. The school district superintendent, Ann Clark, has issued personal calls for teachers, going so far as to ask people at community meetings to “to email, text or call [the teachers you know] and invite them to teach in Charlotte”.

Zamora has been teaching at Charlotte-area schools for years as part of her studies. She worked with children to improve their reading levels and worked in a Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) program that didn’t require a teaching license. “When I was little I always said I wanted to change the world, and what better way than to teach?” she said.


A 2016 survey showed 87% of Daca beneficiaries who responded to the survey were employed, and of that group 21% work in educational and health services, according to University of California professor Tom Wong. To qualify for Daca, people have to have been brought to the US before they turned 16 – making roughly 1.9 million people eligible nationwide, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

And of course the vast bulk of these are not teachers: they are students. It is common for undocumented youth to first truly understand what their status means when they are teenagers. Unlike their classmates, they can’t get driver’s licences in most states, or apply for most university scholarships.

Protesters on a ‘Day without Immigrants’ march in Austin, Texas, February 2017
Protesters on a ‘Day without Immigrants’ march in Austin, Texas, February 2017.
Photograph: Drew Anthony Smith/Getty Images

During the “Day without immigrants” protests in February, where immigrants and their allies were invited to strike, 82.3% of 146,000 students in Charlotte attended school – a 10% drop in student attendance compared to the day before (93%), and the same day in 2016 (92.9%), according to Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. There were also on-campus walkouts and peaceful protests. “We understand that many of our students are feeling lots of anxiety and fear,” Clark said in a statement at the time.

While the number of undocumented immigrants in the US has been stable since 2009, the share of children in K-12 schools (aged between five and 18) with at least one undocumented parent continues to grow, according to the Pew Research Center: it is now about 3.9 million students. In other words, the families of about 7.3% of the students in the US live under threat of more aggressive deportation orders.

“Principals have been telling us a lot of students have not been coming to school,” said Leslie Gutierrez, an education and language professor at Charlotte’s Johnson C Smith University, a historically black college that has become a haven for Charlotte’s undocumented young people, whom it admits.

Her university students, including Zamora, do work in classrooms at local schools for language and ESL programs. She said the students are used to living with the constant threat of deportation, but are more afraid under the Trump White House than ever before.

Donald Trump, pictured campaigning in Charlotte in October 2016
Donald Trump, pictured campaigning in Charlotte in October 2016, describes Daca as a ‘very, very tough subject’. Photograph: Erik S Lesser/EPA

Gutierrez cried as she explained how some of her students have been diagnosed with PTSD and depression. “We thought the Daca population was untouchable, safe – but we are seeing they are not safe,” she said.

There is also a strong economic incentive to permit Daca participants to stay in cities like Charlotte. In a January analysis of Daca, the Cato Institute concluded: “The deportation of Daca participants would cost the American economy billions of dollars, as well as billions of tax dollars foregone, while doing little to address the true concerns that Americans may have about unauthorized immigrants.”

The analysis found that eliminating the programme and deporting all those enrolled in it could cost the government $60bn immediately and $280bn in reduced economic growth over the next decade.

A protest calling for the release of detained Daca participant Daniel Ramirez Medina, Seattle, February 2017
A protest calling for the release of detained Daca participant Daniel Ramirez Medina, Seattle, February 2017. Photograph: Ted S Warren/AP

Trump himself seems torn on the issue. In February, the president said the Daca programme was “a very, very tough subject”, calling most recipients “incredible kids” but saying he was concerned about people abusing the system. “We’re gonna show great heart,” Trump said. “Daca is a very, very difficult subject for me, I will tell you.”

The White House has not moved forward on any Daca amendments, but in recent months, recipients have been arrested and detained by immigration officials. Daniel Ramirez Medina, 24, was held in immigration detention for six weeksdespite having no criminal record. A judge recently approved his release. Lesly Sophia Cortez-Martinez, 32, was stopped from re-entering the US in February, though her attorneys said she was carrying papers that permitted her to travel between the US and Mexico. Daniela Vargas, 22, was held for 10 days in February after speaking at an immigration rally. She told the Clarion-Ledger she plans to stay in the US and become a math teacher.


It has happened to others. Gutierrez said one of her students was not approved for Daca renewal, so she had to stop pursuing a secondary degree. She chose to continue to work at a school, but now without pay.

“These are aspiring citizens, they are already here, contributing,” Gutierrez said. “I just think we should support everybody who lives in our city.”

  • This article was amended on 5 April 2017. The previous version incorrectly stated Madai Zamora’s major.

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