Being an Undocumented Teacher in America Comes With Undocumented Struggles

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

A Fall 2023 report, “Teaching While Undocumented,” by authors Esa Syeed and Abigail Rosas for Rethinking Schools describes the personal experiences and struggles of undocumented individuals newly working as teachers in the state of California. One teacher, Daniela, describes what it was like to attend school as an undocumented, non-English-speaking child. The racism and exclusion she encountered motivated her and many other undocumented students to become educators in order to provide safe spaces for students facing similar classroom struggles. Daniela explains that her choice to tell her students about her status was “nerve-wracking” but helped create a safe environment where students now feel comfortable, seen, and encouraged to learn. The article emphasizes that teachers are responsible for how their identities translate into a classroom environment and how it is ultimately their choice whether or not they wish to share their undocumented status with their pupils. However, revealing this personal information comes with its own set of challenges.

Sharing their undocumented status can have “political, personal, and professional implications” for these teachers, indicating the burden they face when trying to create an inclusive environment in the classroom. As Syeed and Rosas wrote, “Aspirations and resilience cannot overcome the failures of racist and inequitable systems that serve to marginalize immigrants and undermine educators.” 

Although it is not impossible to become a teacher as an undocumented immigrant, the United States makes retaining these teaching jobs very difficult. A conversation between Daniela and another undocumented school teacher, Amber, reveals the trouble of staying in a teaching position under the two-year renewal rules of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Delays in the renewal process create gaps in employment and income. These and other legal challenges threaten the security and careers of undocumented teachers. In response, the Institute for Teachers of Color (ITOC) program dedicates itself to fighting for racial justice among teachers. ITOC provides mental health services to undocumented and other racially minoritized teachers. The ITOC official website states that “Despite an increased focus on recruitment and retention, research has illuminated that teachers of Color are often neglected in their teacher preparation and professional development, racialized professionally, and overlooked for leadership roles in schools. These factors all serve as barriers in their retention and professional growth.” Their struggle goes largely unnoticed in corporate news media.

 In May 2022, the National Education Association (NEA) news reported on what it is like to be an undocumented educator by featuring NEA members sharing their struggles and standing up for their fellow immigrants in the United States. 

In 2016, the New York Times covered a policy passed by the New York State Board of Regents, which allowed “certain undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to apply for professional teaching certificates,” and in 2017, the Times published an article about the precarious position of teachers working through DACA. In 2016, the Washington Post highlighted Melisa Simon, an undocumented immigrant who had recently become the youngest teacher in a Dallas school district. All of these articles coincided with former President Trump’s campaign and subsequent presidency, notorious for its anti-immigration rhetoric. However, the corporate media have neglected to consistently cover the everyday challenges undocumented teachers face to maintain their teaching licenses and the crucial impact these educators make in their students’ lives. Undocumented teachers in the United States are going above and beyond in their fields in order to become the teachers they never had.

Source: Esa Syeed and Abigail Rosas, “Teaching While Undocumented,” Rethinking Schools, Fall 2023.

Student Researchers: Sadhbh Clissmann, Olivia Elmstrom, Annabelle Kissmeyer-Nielsen, Kayla LaFleur, and Griffen McClendon (University of Massachusetts Amherst)

Faculty Evaluator: Allison Butler and Jeewon Chon (University of Massachusetts Amherst)