In classrooms across America, I watched DACA students soar
© Getty

Nearly a year ago I set off on a reporting project to track how charter school graduates fare in college. Little did I realize that my reporting would lead me into the unique and oblique world of undocumented students, the “Dreamers.”

In states such as California and Texas, Hispanic students are flocking to charter schools, and the travails of what happens to those who are undocumented, or have undocumented parents, as they try to achieve college dreams became a big part of my reporting.

What I learned during those interviews might prove useful to members of Congress, to whom President Trump has punted the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) issue. His command: Take care of these 800,000 youth in the next six months, because at that point the program will disappear.

Trump may be sympathetic to the plight of the “Dreamers,” but many hard right Republicans are not, especially some prominent red state attorneys general who threaten an anti-DACA lawsuit they are eventually likely to win, thanks to Trump’s Supreme Court appointment, whom some suggest is among the unsympathetic.

So it really is up to Congress, which of late has not distinguished itself in settling the nation’s thorniest dilemmas. This issue, however, could be different. This is a chance to get it right, and get it done.

Most members of Congress are probably much like me before I started this project. DACA was an abstract issue one read about in the newspapers. If you had an opinion, that opinion wasn’t based upon sitting down with multiple undocumented students in several states.

So what did I learn that might prove useful?

My first takeaway observation took awhile to settle in. Many of the students I spoke with held DACA status while many others were born in the U.S. but their parents were undocumented. My initial assumption, that there are vast differences between these two groups of students, proved to be wrong. Actually, they share a lot of similar challenges.

Take the example of a recent Dartmouth College graduate I interviewed in Los Angeles. Although she was born in the U.S., her parents are undocumented. As a child, she lived in southern California, where both parents picked strawberries. Then they moved to L.A., to work as waiters.

She may have been born in the U.S., but her life is defined by family circumstances. Her parents could never visit Dartmouth, for fear of getting deported. She couldn’t afford to return on college holidays. Now, with the new fear stirred up by Trump, she has to pursue legal options to adopt her younger siblings, just in case her parents are suddenly deported.

She seemed just as troubled as beleaguered as any DACA students I interviewed. In Chicago I met several students born in the U.S. to undocumented parents who faced family pressures to stay in Chicago rather than accept spots in out-of-town universities where the odds of earning a degree were far higher. In some cases, they were the only legal drivers in the family. Who would run chores?

Outside McAllen, Texas, I observed the classroom of pre-AP U.S. History teacher Ramiro Flores, teaching at IDEA Donna on DACA status, a charter school that’s also his alma mater. Flores was born in Mexico near the U.S. border, but his parents didn’t think much of the Mexican schools. Plus, they wanted him to learn English. So every day, he commuted across the border to attend a private school stateside.

In 2007, he enrolled in IDEA Donna, hoping to receive a more rigorous education. Like all IDEA students he was told constantly he would enroll in a four-year college. During his senior year, Flores won a full scholarship to Wabash College in Crawfordsville, Ind. A week before he was supposed to leave to start his freshman year there, he heard from a college representative that scholarships were not available to students like him.

Instead, he earned his degree from The University of Texas Pan American (now University of Texas Rio Grande Valley). Hanging on his classroom wall are three diplomas: graduation from IDEA, his International Baccalaureate diploma and his college degree. That’s a reminder to every 13-year-old Hispanic student in his class: I overcame great odds to earn these degree; you can do the same.

“I had parents last year who were doubting whether their daughter could succeed in the IB program, so I sat them here and had them look back at my diplomas,” Flores said to me. “I let them know that when I was in eighth grade I couldn’t speak English, so in fact, their daughter was far ahead from where I started.”

I also spoke to Luis Ursua Briceno from Arizona, whose father came to the U.S. when he was 5 to work in a produce factory, and never left. His teachers never knew he was a Dreamer, nor did his fellow students.

But even though he was popular with his peers, he always had to come up with excuses why he could never attend weekend teen parties. His fellow students could afford to get into a bit of trouble over underage drinking; he would get deported.

Although he was the class salutatorian, he couldn’t afford college and couldn’t accept scholarships. So he worked for a year to afford a distant community college, and finally found a Dreamers scholarship that allowed him to study biochemistry at Arizona State University. He’s shooting for a career as a pharmacist, or maybe physician, if the law allows it.

Finally, in Houston I met Axel, born in the U.S., but living with relatives in the U.S. because his parents aren’t legal. Consider his junior year at a YES Prep charter school: three Advanced Placement courses (French, physics and English literature), all while working 30 hours a week as a Taco Bell cashier. Now, in his senior year, he’s taking another three AP courses, while maintaining a 3.98 GPA.

Axel’s goal: Get accepted to Columbia University and become an engineer.

In short, what I learned was that these students, either DACA or born here to undocumented parents, represent the best of American values. Work hard to achieve and give back. Frankly, I often don’t see those values in well-off suburban students who only embrace the “get ahead” part of the equation.

So for the first time Congress has a chance to set things right, to settle an important social issue: Protect those who most exemplify what Americans hold dear.

Richard Whitmire, writer of The Alumni series now running on The 74, a non-profit news site covering education in America, is author of “The Founders: Inside the revolution to invent (and reinvent) America’s best charter schools.”

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.