MIAMI, Florida – For Tomas Pendola, teaching high school chemistry is about much more than organic compounds and the periodic table. It’s an opportunity to provide an ear or offer advice to students that may not have anyone else to confide in.
The 25-year-old Argentine immigrant, who has been in the United States since he was 10, grew up without legal papers. He has protection from deportation and a work permit under the five-year-old Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. That's a fact he's never kept from his students.
"I've been very open about my status," Pendola told Univision News. "I believe kids always need someone to talk to outside of their home. I’ve had students tell me they’re undocumented, too."
Pendola, who came to the U.S. from Argentina during that country’s economic crisis in 2001, is one of nearly 800,000 young undocumented immigrants with DACA, known as dreamers. Some 20,000 of them may work as teachers, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute.
During his campaign for president, Donald Trump said he would immediately end the DACA program once in office and deport dreamers. But an announcement Thursday night signaled a reversal on that pledge, with the administration saying the Obama-era program would continue.
That came as something of a relief to teachers wrapping up this school year and beginning to think about the next.
But Pendola says he's still weary. "It's nice to see [Trump] say it," he says. "But that doesn’t mean he necessarily had a change of heart."
Teachers with DACA are a sizable but overlooked segment of the dreamer population. Often drawn to the profession as a way to give back to the society that raised them, these teachers have drawn the attention of advocacy organizations like the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers, which seek to honor their role in classrooms and protect them from deportation.
"These teachers bring extra value to immigrant communities because they know the community’s stressors," says Rocío Inclán, the director of the Human & Civil Rights Department at the NEA. “They contribute with their culture, their language, their personal experience. Students and families trust these teachers.”
Though it’s impossible to know the exact number of teachers with DACA because the federal government does not track that information, the Migration Policy Institute estimates that in 2016, California employed the most DACA teachers of any state, at an estimated 5,000. New York and Texas were home to an estimated 2,000 each. Other states with sizable populations of these teachers were Pennsylvania, New Jersey, North Carolina, Illinois, Florida, Maryland and Arizona.
Twenty-five-year-old teacher Areli Zarate arrived to Austin, Texas, from Mexico when she was eight-years-old. Growing up, she did not share her undocumented status with anyone, not even her best friend.
But then came DACA in 2012. Zarate attended the University of Texas at Austin and studied to become an educator. Now she teaches Spanish and facilitates a class dedicated to first-generation students to prepare them for college. She estimates than some 80 percent of her students are Hispanic. Many are undocumented or from mixed-status families.
"I see my impact. As Latinos, when we have a Latino teacher we look up to them. We want to be like them. I talk to my students about continuing school, the importance of getting educated, appreciating their parents. I tell them 'I went to college, you can do it too.'"
In the months before the election, Zarate volunteered at "DACA clinics" in Austin, assisting anyone completing the lengthy paperwork to apply for DACA. But those clinics were put on pause after Trump won the election and the future of DACA was called into question.
Katherine Huete Galeano, 24, an undocumented special education teacher on the southwest side of Chicago, said that after the election her seventh and eighth grade students were worried about losing their teacher. "We had a conversation about me possibly having to leave the school or not be able to work anymore if DACA is removed," she says.
With the Trump administration's Thursday announcement, Zarate says she feels comfortable encouraging people in her community once again to apply for DACA. But, still, "it’s not enough," she says.
"We needed him to come out and say it, but with this presidency we feel DACA is not something we have secure," she says.
The document released Thursday by the Department of Homeland Security does not flesh out the administration's view on DACA, says Viridiana Carrizales, who heads a program of support for Teach for America's 200 alumni and current teachers with DACA status.
"I’m trying to make sense of the mixed messages," Carrizales says. "For now, many of our teachers and family members with DACA won't have to worry. But for how long? We really don’t know."
There have been a number of reports in recent months of people with DACA being detained and deported. On February 18, DACA recipient Juan Manuel Montes Bojorquez was deported from California to Mexico in what is believed to be the first such case.
“Will the detentions stop?” Carrizales adds. “Now more than ever we need to make sure our community knows its rights. We should be very cautious.”
For now, Pendola says he’s taking life one day at a time. He hopes to be able to remain in the U.S., and maybe even pursue a PhD in chemistry. But he’s also considered another possibility: being forced to move back to Argentina, a place he hasn’t been in 15 years.
“One thing I’ve learned from being undocumented is that things can always change,” he says. “I never know what’s going to happen.”