Teaching in Houston’s Gulfton neighborhood, an area bustling with immigrant families, people often inquire how many of my students are undocumented. I typically side-step the question because it requires me to admit that I lie to my students. I lie whenever I stand in front of my seventh graders and say: “Work hard and you can go to college anywhere you want and be anything you want to be.” The truth is that their education, their career, their life will be influenced by immigration status.
As a part of Teach For America, I believe that the achievement gap can be closed. However, in addition to schools and teachers, immigration status is another pervasive component of the achievement gap. Teaching students from undocumented families has convinced me that we must consider the DREAM Act as not only part of immigration reform, but also as part of education reform.
If my undocumented students manage to overcome all the typical challenges low-income students face—elementary schools that have left them grade levels behind, additional responsibilities at home, violence in their communities—they will still be undocumented. Immigration laws reinforce the achievement gap beyond middle and high school. Even the absolute best students, if undocumented, are forced to choose colleges that turn a blind eye to a lack of paperwork. The colleges the best students in my school system attend barely reach the levels that the middle 50 percent of students at excellent private schools attend.
Opponents of the DREAM Act continue to suggest that undocumented children should suffer from their parents’ decisions. Most recently, the Texas Republicans noted in their 2012 platform that “non-citizens unlawfully present in the United States” should not be allowed to enroll in public schools. As a teacher, I do not know how to encourage students to be good community members when that very community desires to punish them for something entirely outside their control.
We waste public resources when we educate the children of undocumented immigrants then refuse those students the ability to contribute to society. We pave an impossible road for teachers working in difficult urban areas when they are not able to offer their undocumented students a “way out” through education. We hurt our communities when these students turn to gangs, violence, and crime. We reduce the amount of talent in the United States when we do not let brilliant, hardworking students pursue careers in our country.
It is my dream that by the time my seventh graders are seniors in high school, they will be able to attend whatever college they choose—regardless of immigration status. They have five years, but the clock is already ticking. There are many students who do not have five years. In the wake of President Obama’s executive order, passing the DREAM Act is more crucial than ever. We must capitalize on the momentum of immigration reform. Only then will an excellent education at every level become a reality for all of our students.
This column originally appeared on The Huffington Post.
Alyssa Granacki graduated from Duke University with degrees in American history and Italian studies. She is a Teach For America corp member at YES Prep Public Schools, a charter organization in her hometown of Houston, Texas.
Feature image courtesy of SEIU International via Flickr.