By Keith Coffman
DENVER (Reuters) - The Denver Public School system is allowing immigrants who have resided illegally in the United States since they were children to teach in its classrooms under a relaxed employment policy advanced by the Obama administration, district officials said this week.
Superintendent Tom Boasberg said in a statement that Denver schools were the first in the country to hire teachers under a directive signed by President Barack Obama in 2012.
Under that directive, the Deferred Action of Childhood Arrivals (DACA), immigrants who came to the United States as children and meet certain other criteria can apply for a work permit for a renewable period of two years.
"These teachers often are bi-lingual or multi-lingual and have a deep personal understanding of the challenges that many of our students face who similarly came to this country in undocumented status as young children," Boasberg said.
About one-third of Denver's 87,400 students are "English-language learners," and the majority of those are Spanish speakers, a district spokeswoman said, adding the district does not track how many students lack legal immigration status.
Denver has two such teachers in its program, with plans to expand that next school year, the district said. One of the teachers, Alejandro Fuentes Mena, came to the United States from Chile at age 4.
"The impossible that existed in my childhood is something that is plausible and a reality now," said Mena, who teaches English to fifth graders. "I now have the opportunity to impact my students and show them that they too can achieve at the highest level."
Denver has hired teachers in the program as part of its participation with Teach for America, which places teachers in low-income schools, many of whom are recent college graduates without a background in education.
Fred Elbel, director of the Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform, an organization that opposes granting any type of legal status to such immigrants, criticized the program.
"There are at least 20 million Americans who either do not have a full-time job or are underemployed. This includes teachers," he said. "It is unlikely that most of the illegal aliens with (DACA) status are trained, qualified and certified as educators."
A comprehensive immigration reform bill passed the Democratic-controlled U.S. Senate last year but has stalled in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Republican lawmakers have cited deep divisions over the issue, including granting legal status to 11 million undocumented immigrants.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Leslie Adler)