In 2012, when Liz Cortez finally got her work permit under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allows undocumented immigrants brought to the country as young children to legally live and work in the United States, she treated the paper like a massive engagement ring. “I was obsessed with my work permit for weeks,” she says. “I couldn’t stop staring at it.”
Cortez had lived in the United States since she was 6 months old, when her mother brought her here fleeing a complicated relationship in Mexico. She grew up with American friends, graduated from an American high school, and spent years working in restaurants that provided economic value to American cities. But because she had no documents, she was unable to apply to college or realize her potential like her American peers. Suddenly, when she was 24, DACA changed everything. Previously, Cortez had been struggling to make ends meet — babysitting during the day and cleaning restaurants from 2 a.m. to 7 a.m., every day of the week.
Now, she could apply for a better job, receive a paycheck and get her driver’s license. “I had so much more potential, and now I could find a rewarding job that would let me come home at the end of the day and feel like I helped somebody,” she says. “I wanted to do the best I could with these documents and take advantage of this opportunity that this beautiful country — my only country — was giving to me.”
How unfair would it be if you had to forcefully leave the country that you were raised in?
In this, Cortez is not unusual. There are roughly 800,000 DACA recipients in the United States, and they make significant contributions here. Eighty-one percent of DACA recipients have graduated from high school and 90 percent of them were employed in 2015. That year, they earned nearly $20 billion in income and paid $3 billion in taxes. They also hold significant economic clout after taxes, with almost $16.8 billion in spending power.
Though she had only a high-school degree, Cortez made good use of her work permit. Her bilingual skills, the many hours of volunteer work she’d done with the elderly, and her sheer persistence secured her a job at the nonprofit Maui Economic Opportunity. For three years, she was a program specialist on the island, helping Spanish speakers apply for insurance, set up doctors’ appointments, translate documents, and more.
From there, Cortez went to work for the immigration attorney who had helped her to apply for DACA. He had recently opened his own practice and was looking to expand. “If there’s anyone I would want to hire as my assistant, it would be you,” he told Cortez when he offered her the job. Now, Cortez assists the firm in helping immigrants navigate the complicated U.S. visa system. Additionally, she works with U.S. business owners who rely on foreign labor to keep their operations running at full capacity — which, in turn, allows them to provide jobs to U.S. citizens.
Looking to the future, Cortez would like to become a certified paralegal and go into law enforcement administration. But the current administration’s decision to end DACA in the spring of 2018 has her worried. Back in high school, she had won a college scholarship that she was not able to accept because she did not have a Social Security number. Now, the end of DACA wouldn’t simply put her education and job at risk — it could jeopardize her very life in the United States, the only country she’s ever known.
Most undocumented immigrants come to the United States because of work opportunities. These individuals are far more likely than the rest of the population to be in the prime of their working years, ranging in age from 25-64. Studies also indicate that undocumented immigrants are not displacing U.S.-born workers. Rather, they are filling jobs that few Americans are interested in pursuing.
It is especially frustrating to Cortez because she, her mother, and her father have been contributing actively to this country for decades. Her mother has worked factory jobs and her father was a chef who helped open four restaurants throughout Southern California before moving to Maui, where the family now lives. All this time, they have spent their money at U.S. businesses and paid state and federal taxes. In fact, the family is part of an immigrant base that in 2014 contributed $688.6 million to taxes in Hawaii’s Second Congressional District and wielded $1.7 billion in spending power.
In fact, analysis has shown that that passage of the Dream Act, which would provide a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants, would add $329 billion to the U.S. economy and create 1.4 million new jobs by 2030. It would also boost state and federal household income tax revenue by $5.6 billion and add $4.6 billion in federal business tax revenue.
Cortez wants immigration reform that acknowledges these contributions — but especially those of DACA recipients. “The people who proudly have DACA and have done something to better themselves and their communities — who are no danger to society whatsoever — they deserve nothing but fair immigration reform, with a path to citizenship,” says Cortez. “How long have we been here already? How much effort have we put (in) to better our lives?” And to the rest of the country — including the Americans she considers to be her compatriots — Cortez asks: “How unfair would it be if you had to forcefully leave the country that you were raised in?”