Holding on to Hope With DACA's Future at Stake
Miriam Gonzalez Avila, a teacher and Teach For America alum, filed a lawsuit to save DACA. Now the Supreme Court is set to hear her case.
November 7, 2019
For the nearly 800,000 undocumented people who receive work permits and legal protection through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, their future in this country rests on a Supreme Court hearing that will take place on Tuesday, November 12th.
This is happening thanks to DACA recipients and immigration advocates who filed lawsuits against the Trump administration over its 2017 decision to end the program. Among them is Miriam Gonzalez Avila, a 2016 Teach For America Los Angeles alum. Now, three lawsuits are being considered by the Supreme Court, including the one that Miriam is a part of.
Miriam, who was born in Mexico, is a DACA recipient who currently teaches 6th grade in Los Angeles. After the Trump administration announced its intention to end the DACA program, Miriam was among the first DACA recipients to come forward and take legal action. Her lawsuit made national headlines and contributed to a decision by U.S. district courts to allow previous DACA recipients to continue renewing their DACA status.
Teach For America is one of the largest organizations in the country to recruit and support teachers with DACA status. To date, nearly 300 DACA recipients have joined the corps, and about 9,000 DACA recipients are employed as teachers nationwide. The impact of losing these teachers would be felt in every classroom, and throughout every community.
Now, in the absence of any action by Congress, the Supreme Court will decide the future of the DACA program, leaving millions of undocumented young people anxiously waiting in limbo—including Miriam. The end of the program would mean that people like Miriam would lose their ability to legally work, and could face the risk of deportation, in many cases to a country that is totally unfamiliar.
We caught up with Miriam on Saturday, as she was on her way to her classroom to finish grading papers, to hear what’s on her mind as she counts down the days until her case will be argued in front of the Supreme Court.
How are you feeling right now with the Supreme Court hearing coming up?
I’m definitely feeling a mix of emotions. I’m excited that we’re able to present our case in court. But there’s just so much at stake over the next few weeks and months. So my excitement is also mixed with a lot of anxiety and fear around not knowing what is going to happen.
My family has been by my side this whole time and is very supportive of me. But it’s been a big learning process for them too, as far as understanding the legal system and how things work. I don’t think any of us realized how big this case was going to be.
What have the past two years been like since you filed your lawsuit?
The past two years have been so surreal. It doesn’t really feel like two years have passed at all. And at the same time, I feel like there has been a lot of waiting, and there are still so many unknowns. Through this process, I’ve learned to always have a back-up plan.
Over the past two years, I’ve also deepened my belief in what I’m doing. I’ve made connections with an incredibly supportive community which is what keeps me going. Even seeing the number of amicus briefs that people are filing in support of the DACA program has been so powerful.
How does it feel to be one of the plaintiffs who kicked off this national conversation about DACA?
I still can’t believe my case is going to the Supreme Court. I never would have imagined that I would be sharing my story publicly. It’s such an incredible feeling to see how my case has brought the whole DACA community together. I got to meet the plaintiffs from the other lawsuits, which was very powerful. We all come from different places and we have different stories. But we all share so much hope and strength, and a willingness to continue fighting no matter what.
It’s because of this community that I’ve been able to find my voice. I wouldn’t have joined the lawsuit if it wasn’t for the countless other undocumented folks who have been fighting for the Dream Act since I was in middle school. Now I feel like it’s my moment to speak out and fight for our rights.
This is a big moment that will impact everyone, not just undocumented people. This feels like the most important thing I’ve ever done, and I’m representing my entire community. I know my students will be on my mind when I’m there.
You took a big risk to file a lawsuit and share your story. Why was it important for you to speak out?
The main reason I decided to speak out is because of my students. I’ve been thinking about some of my students from my first year of teaching. They are juniors in high school now and a lot of them would have been eligible to apply for DACA if the program was accepting new applications.
I decided to join the lawsuit because my students were looking to me for answers. They would ask me, “What I was going to do about the situation?” That was one of the biggest driving forces for why it was important for me to speak out.
I’m fighting for my family as well. Because the government is no longer accepting new DACA applications, my younger sister is unable to apply. But this isn’t just an issue that affects me personally—this affects the lives of my students and their families—basically the whole community I’m serving.
“DACA opened up a life of choices and opportunities.”
What would be different about your life today if the DACA program did not exist?
When I was at UCLA, I was well connected to the other immigrant students on campus. We were all working towards our degrees, but we had no idea if we’d actually be able to have a job where we could use them. It felt like everything we had been working toward would be for nothing. If this program wasn't announced in 2012, I don't know where my life would be right now. I probably wouldn’t have become a teacher.
DACA opened up a life of choices and opportunities. I could now use my college degree and work in a field that I chose. I was able to apply for credit and buy a car so I could drive to my teaching job. And now, two of my younger siblings are starting college. Because of my job, I’m able to help my parents with expenses.
What’s at stake for our undocumented students and families if DACA protections are repealed?
I don’t even think we understand the magnitude of loss and instability that will happen in our communities if DACA is repealed. People could lose their jobs, their homes, and basically everything they’ve been working toward for the past seven years. Right now, DACA recipients pay $8.8 billion in taxes. It will affect everyone if DACA is repealed, not just individual families, but communities, and the country as a whole.
For me personally, it means that I might not be able to continue teaching. And I know I’m not the only teacher who would be affected. We keep hearing about teacher shortages and all I can think about is, what’s going to happen to those students if all the undocumented teachers are no longer able to teach?
What are you planning to do on the day of the Supreme Court Hearing?
I actually just booked my tickets to Washington, D.C., and I plan to be there for the hearing. I'm excited because I’ll get to see the other plaintiffs as well, not only from the California lawsuit but also from the New York, Maryland, and the D.C. suits as well. It’s hard to imagine what it will feel like when I’m there. I know it’s going to be powerful and emotional to just be there in person and support each other.
I told my students this week that I was going to be gone for a few days. They're excited because they know what the Supreme Court is and they understand that this is a really important moment for all of us.
Is there anything else that is important for us to know?
I would encourage folks who are eligible to renew their DACA status to start the paperwork now. Given all the uncertainties, this is one thing people can do to have some peace of mind.
This interview has been edited and consolidated.