Education

She’s a Berkeley grad teaching 7th grade math. The end of DACA puts her future in jeopardy

She graduated from Berkeley and teaches 7th grade math. Next year, she could lose her job.

Natomas math teacher Diana Montelongo, an undocumented DACA resident in the Sacramento area, opens up about her history and concerns about the future.
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Natomas math teacher Diana Montelongo, an undocumented DACA resident in the Sacramento area, opens up about her history and concerns about the future.

Diana Montelongo came to the United States as a 6-year-old from Mexico, brought by her parents in search of a better education.

Now a graduate of UC Berkeley, Montelongo teaches math in Natomas to middle school students. On a recent weekday, hands shot up in Montelongo’s seventh-grade class when she asked students to help her add integers with imaginary balloons and sandbags. Using imagery from the movie “Up” is one way Montelongo connects with students.

The day after the 2016 election, she decided another way would be to share her story.

“I came into the classroom and students were crying and hugging each other,” Montelongo recalled. “There were students that had to be sent home because they were afraid their parents were not going to be there when they returned.”

Montelongo, 23, is one of about 5,000 educators working in California schools who are not just working with undocumented students but are undocumented themselves, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

With President Donald Trump’s decision this month to end federal protections for young undocumented immigrants (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), thousands of school employees could lose their jobs absent further action by Congress. Sacramento-area school officials fear that a large exodus could deepen an ongoing teacher shortage.

“If DACA is reversed, we are losing teachers who want to be in the classroom,” Montelongo said. “It’s impacting the students directly. We already have students who have had long-term substitutes the entire year.”

Montelongo landed in her Natomas classroom through Teach for America, a national nonprofit in which teachers commit to working in underserved neighborhoods in return for additional training and mentoring.

She has been educating other Teach for America participants on how to support students who are undocumented and fear they and their families will be deported.

Erika Hermosillo, managing director of alumni affairs for Teach for America, calls Montelongo brave for sharing her story with other teachers. “From there ... hopefully they will go back to their regions and feel they can engage in some of those conversations, and hopefully advocate,” she said.

Montelongo relies on other Teach for America DACA teachers for emotional support. The group of 150 undocumented teachers meets each summer to share resources and stories.

Montelongo, whose DACA status expires in January, filed for a two-year renewal last week. Those with DACA permits that expire between now and March 5 have until Oct. 5 to apply for a two-year renewal.

However, if those permits are not approved, their legal status could change as soon as March 6. Those whose permits expire after the March deadline may not be able to renew them, leaving them without federal work authorization.

She and other DACA teachers are making emergency plans in case their permits are not renewed. Montelongo hopes to continue to work as a contracted employee if that happens, she said. But there would be no protection from deportation.

“It’s definitely a sense of fear, not knowing what my future holds,” Montelongo said.

But if she has to leave her job, Montelongo wants her students to know why.

“I want to be here,” she said. “I want to be here for the students. If I have to leave, I want my students to know it isn’t because I’m leaving them.”

The Sacramento region has more than 13,000 DACA recipients, more than most states, according to the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank in Washington, D.C.

Because federal law prohibits tracking DACA employees by status, local districts do not know how many DACA teachers work for them. State and federal numbers are available from nonprofits like the Migration Policy Institute, which uses census data to estimate the number of DACA-eligible people in teaching and other occupations.

“The impact of losing anyone would be something we don’t want to see happen in any circumstance,” said Xanthi Pinkerton, Elk Grove Unified spokeswoman. “It’s not just our teachers, we have shortages of bus drivers and nurses. It’s concerning.”

Sacramento County schools chief Dave Gordon said he will meet with district leaders to review their options.

Jorge Aguilar, superintendent of Sacramento City Unified, said he worries that his district will lose bilingual employees and those with other needed skills. One-fifth of students in the city district were classified as English learners last year.

“As immigrants themselves, these employees also relate to many of our students, including English learners, because in many cases they’ve lived the same experiences that our students are living.” Aguilar said. “Revoking DACA is short-sighted because it ignores the very valuable and necessary contributions of these educators and employees to the school system.”

Aguilar thinks these contributions are so important, in fact, that he is working with the teachers union and California State University, Sacramento to expand the number of DACA teachers at Sacramento City Unified schools. He hopes to do this by offering DACA students financial incentives to complete a teaching certificate after graduating from college. In return, the students would return to Sacramento City Unified to teach.

In the meantime, the new superintendent – a child of immigrants – is intent on keeping the DACA teachers already at the district. He is looking into the possibility of sponsoring DACA teachers for work permits, so they can continue to work in the country if their status is revoked. The school district already sponsors teachers recruited from the Philippines.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, in announcing the end of DACA this month, said the Trump administration was acting to ensure that immigration laws were being enforced. He also said that DACA “denied jobs to hundreds of thousands of Americans by allowing those same jobs to go to illegal aliens.”

In a fact check of that statement, The Associated Press said that “few economists or business leaders subscribe to the administration’s view,” given that the unemployment rate is low and companies are in need of more workers.

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert

DACA eligibility:

  • Were under the age of 31 as of June 15, 2012;
  • Came to the United States before reaching 16th birthday;
  • Have continuously resided in the United States since June 15, 2007, up to the present time;
  • Were physically present in the United States on June 15, 2012, and at the time of making your request for consideration of deferred action with USCIS;
  • Had no lawful status on June 15, 2012;
  • Are currently in school, have graduated or obtained a certificate of completion from high school, have obtained a general education development (GED) certificate or are an honorably discharged veteran of the Coast Guard or Armed Forces of the United States; and
  • Have not been convicted of a felony, significant misdemeanor,or three or more other misdemeanors, and do not otherwise pose a threat to national security or public safety.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services

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