A year ago today, I was shaken to my core. March 5 was the day when Congress failed to meet the deadline to save the program that gave young immigrants like me, who were brought to this country as children, the right to work and live without fear of deportation. Suddenly, everything I had known and the future I had dreamed was up in the air.
Luckily, I was able to take advantage of a court extension for recipients of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. That means I’m able to work at the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy and pay in-state tuition at Virginia Commonwealth University, which is the only way I could afford to continue my education to prepare for a career in political advocacy work. Despite this temporary stopgap, however, I still live in fear that I’ll wake up to terrifying news that my entire world has been turned upside down. I’ve lived with this constant anxiety for an entire year, and Congress hasn’t come up with a permanent solution.
I still remember how I felt a year and a half ago when I learned DACA was supposed to officially end six months later. All I could think about was, “Wow, this could be my last semester here.” After class I ran to tell my sister, who is also a DACA student at VCU, and we cried together. We had hoped there would be a solution by now, but the reality remains that 800,000 Dreamers can’t move forward with the futures we’ve prepared for all our lives. We want to continue working and contributing to the United States, but how can we reach our full potential if we’re always worrying about our very right to be here? That basic uncertainty puts our whole lives on hold: Should we pursue internships and jobs? Invest in buying a home? Start a family?
My parents brought our family to this country from Mexico when I was just 8 years old because they wanted my younger sister and me to receive a good education, and we were lucky to benefit from the Virginia public school system.
By the time Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring announced in 2014 that certain DACA recipients who’d had their status for at least a year would be eligible for in-state tuition, I was ecstatic that I could take advantage of the policy and enroll at VCU. The future I wanted — that my parents sacrificed for me to get — was finally within reach. Without the policy that enrolls 1,400 DACA recipients statewide, I’d have to pay $35,798 instead of the $14,490 I pay annually now.
Since DACA was enacted in 2012, more than 800,000 DACA recipients across the United States have become eligible for legal employment and, in some states, including Virginia, have been able to get a driver’s license and pursue higher education. And our ability to do these things have contributed greatly to this country.
In Virginia alone, the more than 30,500 DACA-eligible residents generate $467.2 million in household income, $70.3 million of which goes toward taxes, leaving us $396.9 million in spending power to invest back into our local communities, according to the bipartisan immigration reform group New American Economy.
Nationally, we contribute to a wide range of industries from restaurants and construction to health care, education, and STEM, and pay more than $3 billion in taxes annually.
Yet Dreamers aren’t the only immigrants who break their backs to contribute to this country and deserve protection. I’m urging Congress to pass immigration reform that provides a pathway for residency for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are already living and working in the United States. According to data from NAE, they are economic contributors, not the criminals our president so often paints them to be. Consider as proof the $100 billion surplus generated by undocumented immigrants in the Social Security program over the last decade, or the $25.3 billion they pay in state, local, and federal taxes.
Yet we can’t do our best work when we live in perpetual limbo. We as a nation can do better. We must do better.