As soon as Ovier Alvarez, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, was granted the right to legally work in the United States, he started a photography business. Alvarez is a Dreamer, one of roughly 800,000 who has so far received protection under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a 2012 policy that provides qualifying undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children renewable two-year reprieves from deportation and the authorization to work in the country. Receiving DACA allowed Alvarez to acquire a Social Security number, a California driver’s license, and a bank account, and to start a sole proprietorship. “Now I’m able to do business and pay business taxes to the state,” he says. “When I hear people say, oh those DACA kids, we pay for them, I can tell you honestly that I’m one of those kids,” Alvarez says. “I’m not using anyone’s tax money. All of my education came out of my own pocket or out of my parent’s pockets.”
Alvarez is one of the 1.3 million young people currently eligible for DACA, although that number is expected to grow to 1.8 million as more youth age into the program and as more people complete their high school education. Ninety percent of the DACA-eligible population 16 and older are employed, and, of those, 4.5 percent are entrepreneurs with a combined annual business income of $659 million, a significant boost to local economies across the country.
I want to show everyone that I’m a productive member of society, like many other DACA recipients, and that I provide, not take, from society.
Alvarez’s company, Ovier Photography, specializes in headshots and portraits of children, actors, models, and politicians. He has photographed campaigns for California assembly members, and has photographed California Gov. Jerry Brown. Achieving such success is exactly why Alvarez’s parents brought him and his brother to the United States in 2004: They wanted their children to have the kind of upward mobility that wasn’t possible in Mexico. There, Alvarez’s father had struggled for years to keep his three small businesses — a tortilla shop, butchery, and hardware store — running. Even then he had only been able to sustain his businesses by spending months at a time working as a meat cutter in the United States. “He wanted a better future for us,” Alvarez says. “No one in his family had an education or a degree.”
After the family relocated to California, Alvarez’s parents found work in a grocery store, his father butchering and his mother wrapping meat. The transition was difficult. Alvarez didn’t speak English, and his high school had few Latino students. “You could count them on your hands, literally,” he says. Alvarez’s father arranged for his kids to take night and summer classes, so they wouldn’t be held back, and Alvarez graduated and enrolled in Riverside Community College, where he began working as a portrait photographer. “I wanted to become the voice of the voiceless, so I took journalism, mass communication, film, and photography,” he says. Later, when Alvarez obtained DACA, he enrolled at Copper Mountain College to complete a bachelor’s degree in political science.
Today Alvarez and his brother, also a DACA recipient, each own their own home in California. “I love where I live, I love my peers, I love my friends, and that’s why I’m trying to be a good citizen and help the community,” he says. “And I want to show everyone that I’m a productive member of society, like many other DACA recipients, and that I provide, not take, from society. That’s why we worked so hard to purchase our first homes.”
In addition to the financial investment Alvarez makes in the community through business and property tax payments, Alvarez is also civically engaged. He completed an internship with state Assemblywoman Eloise Gómez Reyes; serves as secretary for the League of United Latin American Citizens; and is a member of the Chicano Latino Caucus.
Immigration reform is important to Alvarez, in part because he is directly affected himself. He knows firsthand what immigrant entrepreneurs can achieve with legal status. “Many people like myself are caught up in limbo,” he says. “We don’t have official status, and that limits our ability to participate in society. I’m a living testament to this, because without my DACA work permit, I would not have been able to open my business, or purchase my home. It is so important to give us young people the opportunity to continue fighting for the American dream.”