Vicente Rodriguez runs an after-school program in Loma Linda, Calif., but dreams of becoming an English and ethnic studies teacher in a state desperate to fill teaching jobs.
But there's a problem: The 30-year-old Rodriguez has a work permit through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that will expire in 2019, before he even has a chance to set foot in a classroom.
"My ability to become a teacher is slowly slipping away," Rodriguez said, speaking before an audience at a news conference Wednesday in the Capitol.
The Trump administration in September said it would wind down the DACA program, which granted work permits to about 690,000 people who, like Rodriguez, were brought to the United States illegally as children.
On Wednesday, Rodriguez rallied with leaders from the National Education Association to press Congress to pass the Dream Act of 2017, a proposal that would provide a pathway to citizenship for immigrants such as himself. The Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank, estimates that there are 20,000 immigrants with DACA working as educators, including 5,000 in California and 2,000 each in New York and Texas.
The DACA program, created by President Barack Obama in 2012, allowed hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the United States as children to work legally and to attend college. President Trump, who said Obama did not have the authority to create the program, has pressed Congress to come up with a fix that would allow DACA recipients to remain in the country.
Some districts, such as Denver Public Schools, have recruited DACA recipients, hoping to find teachers who can empathize with the struggles of their growing populations of immigrant students.
Now, schools are facing the possibility that they could lose educators if DACA ends without a legislative fix.
"Many of these teachers are terrific role models for our kids," Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg said last month. The district educates many students who, like DACA recipients, came to the United States as children.
The American Federation of Teachers, whose 1.7 million members include teachers with work permits through DACA, last week joined the NAACP in suing the Trump administration, arguing that the president's termination of DACA is illegal.
Five of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos's predecessors — including those who served under Republican presidents — also urged Congress last month to protect the immigrants.
"DACA recipients are sharpening their minds in school, accelerating innovation by developing new technologies, teaching the next generation of leaders in our public schools, treating patients in our hospitals and contributing to rescue efforts in Houston," they wrote. Ending DACA without a legislative fix, they wrote, "would trigger a chaotic reversal of the gains achieved by these Dreamers over the last five years."
Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-N.M.), chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, commended educators for inspiring the next generation of immigrant students.
"They're creating the next generation of hope and ambition and success for a country we all know and love," Grisham said. "In my state, we have a very severe teacher shortage. A lot of this is shored up particularly in those rural isolated areas that have higher pockets of poverty and higher challenges. DACA recipients, 'dreamers,' fill that gap willingly, courageously, and effectively make a difference in the classroom every single day."
Regardless of what Congress does, Rodriguez plans to apply to a master's program that will help him earn his teaching certificate. He plans to apply to the University of the Redlands in January.
"My dream to become a teacher is so close I can grasp it," Rodriguez said. He said he hopes to inspire children in the same way his teachers pushed him: "I want to be that teacher that says, 'Hey, you can do it! Anything is possible.' "