Maria Rocha speaks at the announcement of the collaboration between SA RISE, SAISD Police Chief Curiel, and the SAISD district in regards to the handbook about Senate Bill 4.
Maria Rocha speaks at the announcement of the collaboration between SA RISE, SAISD Police Chief Curiel, and SAISD district in regards to the handbook about Senate Bill 4 in 2018. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Last September, our school district asked teachers in San Antonio to return to the classroom. Using a hybrid model, we teach some students in-person and others virtually. I love seeing my students and am thankful for mandated precautions like masking and frequent hand washing, but the stress of maintaining a safe classroom for my students while downplaying fears about my own health – on top of playing catch-up for a lost spring semester and toggling back and forth between in-person and online instruction – is intense. It’s no wonder that 28% of educators say COVID-19 has made them more likely to leave teaching or retire early. 

I can’t blame them, but I’m concerned about the consequences. American schools faced a deficit of more than 100,000 full-time teachers before the pandemic. Bilingual teachers like me are in particularly short supply. In Texas, limited-English speakers grew by almost 50% between 2006 and 2016, while the number of bilingual teachers dropped by 20% during that time.

Even so, I am one of over 2,000 bilingual teachers in Texas who could soon lose their jobs. We are Dreamers, young undocumented immigrants temporarily protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). The Trump administration spent four years trying to deport us. 

Maria Rocha attends a rally in support of the DACA program outside of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington on November 12, 2019. Credit: Courtesy / Maria Rocha

In 2017, the administration rescinded the DACA program, halting new applications and putting all of our futures at risk. Three years later, in June 2020, we were relieved when the Supreme Court blocked the Trump administration’s attempt to end the program, but now our fate lies in the hands of a Texas federal judge. If he rules against the program, that would be devastating, not just for us and our students, but for the future of American education.

Roughly 20,000 Dreamers work in education nationwide. Many of us have overcome tremendous obstacles to pursue this profession. My parents brought me to Texas when I was three, fleeing poverty in our native Mexico. I only learned I was undocumented when I tried to take my learner’s permit test and realized I lacked a Social Security number. College presented more barriers, as scholarships and financial aid required that nine-digit number. I felt angry. I was a top student, an athlete – why were so many doors closed for me? I ended up attending the University of Texas at San Antonio, but because I had to pay out of pocket, it took me seven years to earn my bachelor’s degree.

I’d always wanted to be a teacher because I knew first-hand that educators could change a child’s life. At age 4, Miss Dora, the only Spanish-speaking teacher at my preschool, spent hours teaching me English and became my mentor. As a young adult, after an advisor said I was wasting my time trying to enter the profession, my college professors advocated for me and helped me find a school that would allow me to student-teach even without a state-issued ID. Yet after surmounting all these hurdles, I still couldn’t take my state certification exams without a Social Security number. I considered becoming a domestic worker, but my mom urged me to keep going, despite the odds.

Then on June 15, 2012, my 25th birthday, President Obama announced DACA. Legal employment changed my life. I was quickly hired at a Spanish-immersion preschool and joined Teach for America. Last year, I taught second grade for the San Antonio Independent School District, and this year, sixth grade.

Maria Rocha stands in front of Rep. Joaquin Castro’s office in Washington. She attended the State of the Union as his guest on February 4, 2020.

I’m grateful that I’ve been able to provide support to my Spanish-speaking students and their families during the pandemic. Their families have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19; several of my students’ family members have been sick or lost their jobs. But being able to communicate with these students and their parents in Spanish can help, whether it’s assisting with their schoolwork, navigating through virtual learning, connecting them to mental health resources, or motivating them to stay in school. Even simple things like translating video instructions into Spanish can be the difference between kids coming to class or not. If teachers like me were to lose our work authorization, it would not only add to the current nationwide teacher shortage, but these students would be utterly lost.

Unfortunately, DACA doesn’t give me a path to citizenship. People say, “get in line,” but there is no line for Dreamers. I must renew DACA every two years, pay renewal and legal fees, and wait for my work permit, which I’m never sure will be approved. In short, after living in Texas for three decades, I have no security.

I’m encouraged by the Biden administration’s commitment to Dreamers and the new DREAM Act co-sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn. I’m heartened that the majority of Americans support permanent legal protections for us. But we can’t keep waiting. There are 1.2 million Dreamers in the United States; nearly half of us are essential workers. We are risking our lives to help America through the pandemic. We’ve always been a nation of immigrants – and it’s time we build our way out of this crisis together.

Maria Rocha

Maria Rocha is a bilingual middle school teacher with San Antonio Independent School District.