Recess at Denver’s Castro Elementary School took on a sobering tone as Daniela Uriarte and her fellow fifth-graders gathered to discuss the subject weighing on their young minds: whether a middle school enrollment lottery would secure them a spot at a prestigious junior high that could change the trajectory of their lives.
“We really understood the weight of what that meant,” said Uriarte, now a 24-year-old Metropolitan State University of Denver graduate. “We were so young and we already knew the importance of this decision.”
Uriarte grew up in Denver’s Westwood, a predominantly Latino, working-class neighborhood. Born in Mexico and with a father who joined the workforce before completing school, education meant everything to Uriarte and her parents, who came to this country illegally in search of a greater life for their children.
A better middle school meant more intensive classes and a shot at a better high school — a chance for Uriarte to be the first in her family to go to college, earn a degree and know a life different from her parents’ struggles.
Luck was on Uriarte’s side in 2010 when she entered the Denver Public Schools enrollment lottery and nabbed a spot at the middle school she and her family hoped would put her on a path toward success: Denver West Middle School, known at the time for its rigorous focus on getting students to college, she said.
But Uriarte’s future once again hinges on circumstances outside of her control. She’s a beneficiary of the legal protections provided under the federal government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program — the future of which is in doubt as courts weigh its legality.
She wonders whether she’ll be able to pursue the life she and her family worked and sacrificed for or be deported back to a country she only knew as a baby.
Called to the field that guided Uriarte on her path to success, the December graduate hopes to put her elementary education degree with a concentration in culturally and linguistically diverse studies to good use in Colorado, but DACA’s ultimate fate could put her future as a teacher in jeopardy.
“It’s degrading,” Uriarte said. “Some people think it’s just on a whim that people have chosen to leave their home country and come here instead. But to make such a big decision, it’s never for no reason. It makes me angry because I think about everything my parents have done for me and everything I have done. Why can’t I be able to fully enjoy everything that we’ve worked for?”
Future of DACA unclear
DACA, a program established by the Obama administration in 2012, provides two years of renewable protection from deportation and work permits to undocumented people who were brought to the United States illegally as children.
To be eligible for DACA, applicants must have arrived in the U.S. before their 16th birthday, lived in the U.S. continuously since June 2007, be free of any felony convictions or significant misdemeanor offenses, and pose no threat to national security or public safety, among other requirements.
In 2017, President Donald Trump announced he would rescind DACA, instigating a series of court cases to determine the program’s legality that remain ongoing and serve as a constant reminder to hundreds of thousands of people that their lives are being built on a precarious foundation.
In October, the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled DACA unlawful. Existing DACA recipients can still renew their applications, but no new DACA applications are being processed, said Violeta Chapin, a clinical law professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.
More than 13,000 Coloradans are DACA recipients, according to 2022 data provided by the Migration Policy Institute. About 8,000 more people in Colorado are estimated to be eligible for DACA but are blocked from newly applying.
Almost 600,000 DACA recipients nationwide have been left stranded in this ongoing limbo.
“It’s just sort of churning around,” Chapin said of DACA’s status. “Eventually, it will get to the Supreme Court, but right now it’s in a holding pattern.”
Chapin described the odds of the Supreme Court’s conservative majority siding with DACA recipients as “miraculous.”
A different kind of learning loss
When Uriarte’s name was drawn for Denver West Middle School, she said a weight lifted that she hadn’t realized her child self was carrying. The door to a path toward opportunity had been opened, and Uriarte sprinted through.
Even so, Denver West Middle School was intense for Uriarte, who learned English while attending elementary school.
Uriarte’s experience as a Latina student inspired her to become a teacher so she could be a resource she never had — someone who understood the double-edged sword of assimilating into an American school.
“The loss that a lot of students like me experienced growing up makes me want to make sure students can continue to nurture that part of them,” Uriarte said. “That was one of the most heartbreaking things for my parents. The more we went to school, the quicker we were losing the parts of ourselves we didn’t want to see gone — the language, for example.”
Each classroom at Denver West was named after a university, Uriarte said, and the prospect of college was drilled into students. Teachers were caring but academically strict, she said. The workload, she said, was heavy and, at times, overwhelming.
“I did get pretty stressed out, but once I started taking college classes, I realized that everything I had done, going back to middle school, really did prepare me for what I was getting myself into because I was already so accustomed to not taking any shortcuts,” Uriarte said.
By the time Uriarte got to West High School, the gravity of her situation as an undocumented student started weighing heavy. She was accepted into the DACA program in 2016, but there was an unspoken understanding among students not to discuss their legal status for fear of what might happen to their families.
One day, the high school organized a trip to the University of Denver for undocumented students, Uriarte said, to inform them about their college options and avenues to receive monetary assistance since they do not qualify for federal financial aid.
When the students assembled for the trip, Uriarte was shocked to find many of her friends among the group — a secret they all had been keeping from each other and were relieved to finally share.
“It was a very comforting moment to know I wasn’t alone in this,” she said.
Helping undocumented students succeed
Uriarte didn’t know how she was going to pay for college but worked hard enough to earn the selective TheDream.US scholarship.
Additionally, Uriarte received help from the Denver Scholarship Foundation and the Advancing Students for a Stronger Tomorrow state program, which allows eligible undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at Colorado’s public colleges and universities and receive need-based state financial aid.
Gregor Mieder, director of MSU Denver’s Immigrant Services Program, said MSU Denver serves the largest population of undocumented students of any Colorado higher education institution.
“I’ve been working with immigrant youth and families for many years and their dedication to education and to being part of the Colorado labor force blows me away every time,” Mieder said. “These are individuals who are eager to fill the kinds of jobs where we see a huge need in the state of Colorado — like social workers, teachers, nursing, accountants. Those are jobs where we have problems finding folks, and not just a few folks, but thousands and thousands of positions that are open. It’s the immigrant communities that are stepping in and want to fill those positions, and that’s important for our state.”
Mieder’s office helps undocumented students along with refugees and students from abroad learn about financial aid options available to them, provides writing and language support, offers students grants to pay for their DACA renewals, and even connects them with immigration attorneys when needed.
“We have really, fortunately, over the last few years come a long way in Colorado to make college and career more accessible for undocumented people, but a lot of that can be pretty specialized knowledge,” Mieder said.
Many local high schools have counselors or staff knowledgeable in helping undocumented students access college, but if a student or family is interested in learning more, Mieder said reaching out to specific higher education institutions like MSU Denver will provide undocumented people with the answers they’re seeking.
“It’s so mind-blowing”
Uriarte passed her prerequisite classes at the Community College of Denver and transferred to MSU Denver to pursue her elementary education degree.
In the spring, Uriarte began her year-long teaching residency at Northeast Elementary School in Brighton, which she just wrapped.
She hopes to teach either first, second or third grade in Colorado, and she wants to land at a school where she can make the most difference.
“Upcoming teachers know where we’re needed most is where there’s the most trauma and the most diversity and lack of resources, and where I grew up was a Title I (high-poverty) school and where I did my residency was a Title I school, and I can’t imagine another way for me to give back to everything I’ve gotten,” Uriarte said.
Looking back, Uriarte is proud of everything she and her family have overcome. Her parents have since attained their residency status, and her mother earned a GED.
“Being reflective, thinking about where we were back then and where we are now, it’s so mind-blowing,” Uriarte said. “There’s a lot of joy in seeing where everything started and how everything panned out.”
The new graduate hopes the joy and luck that have graced her life in the past continue so she may work toward her future in the only country she remembers.
But that will depend on the future of DACA. The bipartisan legislative support for the program that once existed is dwindling, said Chapin, the CU Boulder law professor.
“It’s an abject failure of our congressional members to agree, and it leaves those who are impacted by it with a tremendous amount of anxiety and anger and an increasing sense of not feeling welcome in a country that they love,” Chapin said. “It is our fault — the U.S. system and people who can vote — that we have been unable to pass laws that would normalize and change the status of not just DACA recipients but their parents, many of whom have lived here for decades and the vast majority are contributing members of society.”
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