When Areli Zarate crossed the border from Mexico at the age of eight, she was with her three brothers, the oldest of whom was nine. They didn’t have any adults with them—their parents were already in the United States—but the four knew that their lives were changing forever. Sixteen years later, she considers the United States her home, and has legal status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy (DACA), which grants renewable work permits to immigrants who entered the country without legal status before their 16th birthday. But without a road to citizenship, Zarate still feels like an outsider, and as a teacher with the Austin Independent School District, she sees many of her students facing the same struggles.
When Zarate graduated from high school, she went on to attend the University of Texas at Austin—which provides scholarships and financial aid for undocumented students—but knew there was a good chance she wouldn’t be able to legally work here after graduation. When DACA passed in 2012, everything changed. “I couldn’t believe it,” Zarate recalls. “I was still in college at the time, and I just knew that it meant I could work as a teacher as soon as I graduated. I just became a different person—not scared anymore, not afraid of the police, of being deported. It was like being free.”
With support from her school district and the teachers’ union, Zarate runs clinics to help eligible students complete their DACA paperwork. Still, she knows it’s not a permanent fix. “Some of my students are still very scared, and I try to be open with them about my own status,” she says. “I understand both sides of the story when it comes to immigration reform, but I’d like people to take into account that we wouldn’t be coming to this country if our own country was someplace we could live. We work really hard to belong here, and I don’t know any other place. I love Mexico, but there’s a lot about that country that makes me scared to go back,” she says, referencing safety concerns amid an increase in drug-related violence in Mexico in the past 10 years.
I just became a different person—not scared anymore, not afraid of the police, of being deported. It was like being free.
Though it’s early in her teaching career, Zarate feels she’s making a valuable contribution to her community and investing in its future. Still, she feels like she doesn’t quite belong, and wants citizenship to be within reach. “I work hard,” she says. “I get here at 7 a.m. and leave at 8 p.m. every single day. But at any moment, this country can say that they don’t need me anymore. I feel like I’m in limbo. The community needs me, but can’t take me in at the same time. I feel used.”