Ellen Holmes and Bryan Christopher teach at Riverside High School in Durham, N.C. — and they want people to know about their school’s “dreamers,” undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country illegally when they were children and who consider the United States their home.
While a fierce debate on whether the dreamers should be forced out of the country or given a path to citizenship rages in Washington, D.C., Holmes and Christopher say these young people have improved their school, and they wrote the piece below explaining how.
Holmes teaches Spanish and is a faculty adviser for Destino Success, a club at Riverside to help Latino students and culture. She also received Durham’s Bright Star award for service and commitment to the students of Durham Public Schools. Christopher teaches English and journalism, and is a Hope Street Teacher Voice Fellow.
By Ellen Holmes and Bryan Christopher
Every spring, Riverside High School holds a 5-on-5 soccer tournament. Hundreds of students show up to watch and compete. Teachers and administrators form their own teams and bring their families. A DJ blasts Latino music. Parents cook and serve tacos, tamales, pupusas, and aguas frescas as over 20 teams compete well into the night.
It’s a celebration of our school’s Latino community and one of the best days of the year. A third of Riverside’s student body is Latino, but it’s taken a long time for their culture to become part of the school’s DNA. And it wouldn’t have happened without “dreamers.”
The tournament is organized by a student organization that was born 10 years ago in response to student discipline data. Spanish teacher Fernando Campos didn’t like that Latino students were significantly overrepresented in suspension rates. He wanted to help them feel like a part of the school community, so he and two senior students created Destino Success, a club to help students, immigrant or otherwise, promote a positive image of Latino culture, provide leadership opportunities and publicity for high-achieving Latino students.
It didn’t take long for Destino to challenge the negative stereotypes. The students who joined the club became positive role models and develop a strong cohort of active, engaged and visible students. They organized community service projects, promoted postsecondary educational and career opportunities, and demystified the access to those resources. Many Latino students didn’t have strong educational histories in their families, and the club opened their eyes to a future they hadn’t seen before.
Destino’s work found another gear after the Obama administration implemented Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012. It enabled undocumented students who met certain criteria to obtain a valid driver’s license, enroll in college, legally secure jobs and pay income taxes. College access became a real possibility for dreamers — the undocumented students who applied for DACA — and it energized Destino to work harder for their own benefit and inspire other students who didn’t believe college could be for them.
Campos left Riverside in 2014 to become a district dropout-prevention specialist, but Destino continued. In addition to cultural events and community service, college representatives visited club meetings to explain the admissions process and financial aid. Recent graduates shared their tips for writing application essays and applying for scholarships.
Destino Success became as much a part of Riverside as the football team and band. Non-Latino students began joining. Club members also played varsity sports, sang in the chorus, wrote for the school newspaper and held elected positions in student government. When members were recognized for their many talents, they represented the entire school, not just its Latino community.
Then, in 2016, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement performed a series of raids in Durham. One Riverside senior — Wildin Acosta — was arrested on his way to school one morning in January, sent to a detention center in Georgia and scheduled for deportation. News of his arrest resonated at Riverside, and four Destino members created a social media campaign calling for his release. They argued that Acosta had a clean criminal record and was months away from graduating. Regardless of his immigration status, he possessed the right to finish his education.
The campaign went viral, and within weeks the students were organizing rallies and speaking with elected officials. After the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) halted Acosta’s deportation, the four students traveled to Washington to brief Congress and meet with then-Secretary of Education John King and DHS about releasing Acosta from detention and allowing him to finish school while his case played out in court.
Due to their efforts, Acosta was released and he eventually graduated. The four students who helped make it happen all earned private scholarships to college. Three of them are dreamers. They return to Riverside each semester to referee the soccer matches and share what they’re doing on their college campuses. They remind students that they were walking in the same shoes a few years ago, feeling anxious and uncertain about life after high school.
The kids enjoy their stories, but when it’s time to talk about the future the room shifts. After the Trump administration rescinded DACA last September, their situations and resources changed. Students understand the importance of earning good grades, making positive contributions to the community and behaving professionally, but college and careers once again feel out of reach. They often ask, “What’s the point?”
It’s an educator’s dream to help all children learn and positively influence their communities. Teachers relish the opportunity to work with talented and motivated students, regardless of their immigration status. America is the only home our dreamers know. They arrived as children, adapted to a new country, learned the language and found opportunities to positively influence local schools and economies. If they were to return to the poverty and violence their parents fled, the rest of us would lose everything they have done and will do to enrich their communities. It would also show a generation of students that, despite stepping out of the shadows, revealing their identities and becoming more educated and lawfully employed than other immigrants, they lack the merit required to stay.
Riverside wouldn’t be the same without its soccer tournament and the dreamers who help make it great. Eliminating DACA would mark a symbolic shift in policy but create real consequences in schools across the country and compromise the promises of equity, opportunity and diversity that define our public schools.
Nationally, only 800,000 of the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States are dreamers. A similarly small number of our current and former immigrant students are dreamers, but they’ve made disproportionately large contributions to our school and community. They’ve shown kids and adults alike how to shift the narrative from suspension rates to scholarships and take pride in a culture other than their own. Preserving DACA will keep the talented students where they belong. Call your elected officials and ask them to pass a law securing the future of these young people in the United States — with no strings attached.