Stay, or go? An undocumented Tyler schoolteacher faces a hard choice

This week, The Tyler Loop is sharing stories of young undocumented East Texans who are nervous about Texas’s new attack on DACA, the program that allows them to work legally in the U.S., and about SB-4, the new Texas law that requires local police to act more like immigration agents. This is the first installment of our series. Read more about this project here. 

Elsa was nine years old when she crossed the border with her mother, leaving Mexico behind for a new life in Texas. They traveled under the sun for seven days, sometimes without food or water. But Elsa wasn’t afraid. It felt like an adventure.

Twenty three years later, Elsa has a master’s degree in special education from U.T. Tyler and teaches kindergarten at a local elementary school. She and her husband have three young kids and another on the way. She’s built a life here in Tyler, a family, a house, a church community, a career where she can give back.

A picture from an award ceremony during Elsa’s senior year of high school, 2005

Elsa thought she’d be planning to build a new house this summer, getting ready for the new baby and the next step in her education career. Instead, she’s fighting off near-daily panic attacks as scary news for her and her family keeps piling up. She fears that any moment, she or her husband could get deported and have to start all over again back in Mexico, a place their kids, who are all U.S. citizens, have never been. She keeps telling herself that moving back could be the start of another grand adventure. Some days, it works. Other days, it doesn’t.

Elsa wants you to know she’s tried really hard to become a fully legal citizen. She gets asked about that a lot. “Most people don’t understand that not everyone qualifies, and what the obstacles are,” she says. She’s talked to several lawyers and learned that in her case, to apply for legal residency, she would first have to go live outside the country for at least 10 years. The only other path to legal citizenship would be getting sponsored through her job, but as she’s learned, most employers aren’t willing to take on the costly process. Meanwhile, she pays hundreds of dollars every couple years to keep her DACA status.

“My parents brought me here,” she says. “I didn’t make that decision myself. I don’t want to be here illegally, but every time I think I’ve found a way forward, I realize it’s not an option for my family. Whenever I see someone on social media saying, ‘why don’t they just go back’ or ‘why don’t they just apply the legal way,’ I think, oh, if they only knew.”

This is Elsa’s story.

“My grandfather was the first one to come to this country. He’d work here for a month or two, and then go back. Then my dad started traveling back and forth with him, and they would tell us  stories of what it was like in the U.S. We were living in poverty back in Mexico: a one-room house, no bathroom, no kitchen. We had to go to my grandmother’s house to eat. One day, my mom decided the next time they traveled, she and I were coming, too, and we were not coming back.

We started at Piedras Negras — Eagle Pass, a border crossing spot 140 miles west of San Antonio. I was excited, because I knew we would get to swim across a river. Now, I know how dangerous it really was.

We arrived at Lindale, and I was excited to make new friends and learn a new language. But it was hard for my mom. She was always afraid immigration was waiting around the corner. For years, she had a hard time leaving the house to buy clothes or go to the laundromat, or even to take me to school. When the time came to register and enroll me, she couldn’t do it. I just stayed home and played outside.

My dad worked in lawn care, and one day, a man he worked for saw me playing in the yard. He asked why I wasn’t in school, and my parents explained the problem. He was a coach at the high school, and he offered to help. He drove me to a nearby elementary school, but the principal told him that since I didn’t have a birth certificate showing my age, they couldn’t enroll me — even though I had school records from Mexico showing that I had completed third grade.

We got back in the car, and the coach drove me to a different school, where the principal did enroll me, but in second grade with English as a Second Language services. After that, the coach always asked how I was doing in school, and he’s still a very special mentor in my life.

I was the only non-English speaking student in my school in Lindale, and all the teachers knew my situation. Everyone was very sweet. I never had any problems with racial comments or anything like that. But it still bothers me that they started me two years behind, in 2nd grade when they knew from my school records that I should have been in 4th grade. Overall, I never really felt comfortable in Lindale: I was accepted, but I was seen as different.

Later, my mom and dad spent some time apart, and my mom and I moved to Tyler, where there was a big Hispanic population. I started middle school at Hogg, and the first day, I just couldn’t believe it: everybody was like me! We spoke the same language, talked about the same things. I just had the time of my life.

My mom felt more comfortable in Tyler, too. She was okay with me going out with friends and doing extracurricular activities. She never had many friends or went out much — she still had fears about being caught by immigration. But it was better.

I was always open about my situation; everyone knew. I didn’t want to be filled with fear, stuck at home, like my mom was. And my dad is very social; he’ll go into a room and be friends with everybody by the time he leaves. I thought, I’m going to be more like him. And my mom encouraged it. She wanted me to be open, to do whatever it takes to get ahead. She couldn’t do it herself, but she always encouraged me.

High school was the first time being undocumented got in the way. I went to John Tyler, and I couldn’t drive to school, because you had to show your license to get a parking permit. Of course, I didn’t have a driver’s license. I had to rely on friends and my parents to get to and from school. It was frustrating. In high school, you want your freedom. But I just had to move on.

When it came time to apply for college, I started looking for scholarships. I knew my parents didn’t have money to send me. But every program I looked at said you had to be a U.S. citizen, and the applications asked for your social security number, which I didn’t have. I didn’t know what I was going to do; a scholarship was my only way to college.

I believe there were other undocumented students at John Tyler, but I don’t really remember talking about my situation with any of them. Maybe it was out of fear that if I opened up to someone else like me, they might say something that would discourage me from trying to reach my goals. What if they said that it’s just not possible, so don’t even try it? I knew where I was going, and I didn’t want anything to hold me back.

In the end, I had a lot of support from my career counselor. She found out about a scholarship program for minorities that didn’t require you to answer questions about your immigration status, and she told me about it. I wrote an essay explaining my situation and that without this scholarship, that was it for my education. It was the only scholarship I applied for, and I got it. I spent one year at Texas Women’s University, and then I transferred to U.T. Tyler, where I earned my B.A. in education, to be closer to family.

I graduated from college before DACA [the 2012 Obama policy giving some immigrants who came to the U.S. as children a path to legal employment and some protections from deportation]. At that time, I couldn’t work legally. I had a job offer at the school where I currently teach, but I had to tell the principal that I couldn’t take the position, and that I just had to wait and see if the law changed.

One of my professors from U.T. Tyler suggested I talk to a colleague in her department who had experience working with bilingual teachers, to see if she had any advice for me. She suggested finding a teaching job outside the country, and told me about a school in Costa Rica that would pay for our moving expenses and our housing, and that sounded exciting. My husband and I had just one child then, my daughter, and we saw this as a good opportunity and a good time to do it. I said, tell me what I have to do, and I’ll do it. We were ready to go.

But then the director of my college scholarship program called me and said, “We’re starting a new scholarship for graduate school, why don’t you apply for it?” A master’s degree had never even crossed my mind. My goal was always to get my bachelor’s, and I had met that goal. I was wondering, now what do I do with my life?

A master’s program would give me two more years to stay here, further my education, and in the meantime, maybe the laws would change. One of my professors from U.T. Tyler suggested I look into a program in his field: special education. I had taken undergraduate courses with him and loved them, and most of my graduate-level courses would be with him. So, I went for it.

It was a tough two years. Most of the other students had been special-ed teachers for years; this was all completely new for me. But I found good friends to study with, and I ended up falling in love with special education. I love working with students who struggle, and helping them figure out what’s keeping them from learning.

By the time I graduated, I was able to get a job under DACA. I had a salary, something my parents never had when I was growing up. They lived day by day. I wanted stability for my kids, and I thought we had achieved it. We were able to build our credit, buy a home, have health and auto insurance. All those things that come with having a social security number.

We’re a family with three kids now, soon to be four, and our current home is way too small for us. Our plan was to build. Now, we can’t. We don’t know if we’re going to stay. We can’t make plans — and for someone who likes to plan, that’s very frustrating.

I started to feel that if the politicians in this country want us to leave, that’s what we’ll do. At first, it even was a little exciting. I started looking into housing in Mexico. But then I started researching. I looked at pictures of places we might live, at the condition of the streets. The sidewalks were broken, and I thought, my kids are going to be walking those streets. Here, they have two acres of trees and grass to run around in. They have wild berries growing in our land to pick and eat. In Mexico, we would be buying just a small lot, no land.

I do miss Mexico. But when I think about my kids, would that be the best place for them?

I feel that I’m part of this community. I’ve grown up here. I went to school here. I graduated here. I went from elementary in Lindale, to middle school, high school, college and even graduate school in Tyler. I’m raising my kids here. But every time I complete one stage, there’s some difficulty in taking the next step because of my citizenship status.

My mom wants to go back. Her parents are there. They’re getting older. My grandfather had a heart attack two months ago, and she wasn’t able to go, because she wouldn’t be able to come back. She’s the one who looks after my kids. She’s stuck between staying here and caring for her grandkids, or going back and caring for her parents.

I feel it’s time to give back to her. She should be able to visit her family. She hasn’t seen them in 23 years. The weekend my grandfather had the heart attack, I was off the whole week for spring break from school. But we couldn’t go. That was one of my main motivations of going back when the deportations first came up, to spend those years with my grandparents.

But we’ve built our adult lives here. Our kids grew up here. If any window of opportunity for citizenship is still open, something we’ve been waiting all our lives for, of course we’re going to wait and see. In the meantime, even though I have DACA, we’re not really protected as a family. My husband, mom, and dad don’t have DACA status. If one of them gets taken, my kids and I go with them.

What I’d like to say to people who want us to leave is: okay, tell us how you want it to work. Do you want certain people to stay, and certain people to go? Do you want us all out? Okay, how do you want to do it? But I think they don’t really know what they want. In the meantime, they’re going along enjoying life, and we’re stuck, waiting for answers.

I’m not able to vote. But to be honest, if I had been in the position where I could have voted, it would have been a very difficult decision. I’m pro-life, but on immigration, everything coming from the Republican party was so negative. But there are things that come with the Democratic party that I couldn’t vote for. It would have been a hard choice.

Many people in my congregation did vote Republican. That was hard. We would talk about it, and they would tell me their decision was about being pro-life, not about immigration. They said they’ll pray for our leader and maybe something would change in his heart. It’s hard to hear that, because we know where he stands on this issue. He’s very clear about it. But I pray, too, for something good to come out of all this.

It’s hard on the kids in my classroom, too. Sometimes they come in upset, because they heard their parents talking about how the president was threatening their family and their community. They were scared their parents were going to be deported. It would get to the point where they were being disrespectful when talking about the president. I told them I respect their opinions, but he is the president, and even though you might not agree with everything he does, he is an authority figure. I believe in respecting authority.

I also tell them: maybe your parents can’t vote. But you are citizens. You will vote one day. You might even have the opportunity to be in office one day. So you’re going to have to learn to look at these issues from both sides and see what’s best for you.

I’m just worried that having this type of authority figure will affect the way our kids look at someone in that position.

My oldest is 10. She wants to talk about the news sometimes. I don’t want to put my ideas on her — I just listen, and we pray about it. She knows we might have to leave the country. It’s like the way her dad and I feel: there are days when she’s excited, and other times, she’s nervous. She wonders which of her friends might go too, so she can see them again. But she understands that she’ll be able to come back whenever she wants to. She’s a citizen, and she has rights. I’ve made sure she knows that.”

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Tasneem Raja is the Editor-in-Chief of The Oaklandside. A pioneer in data journalism and local nonprofit news startups, she co-founded The Tyler Loop, a nationally recognized community news platform in East Texas. She was a senior editor at NPR's Code Switch and at Mother Jones, where the team she led helped built the first-ever database of mass shootings in America. She started her career as features reporter at The Chicago Reader and The Philadelphia Weekly, and lives in Oakland with her husband and two imperious terriers.