As the first ever Latino outreach coordinator for the Chamber of Commerce in Oceanside, California, Laura Ojeda is a testament to the Hispanic community’s rising economic power. The chamber created the position to provide a bridge to the Hispanic community, which makes up nearly 36 percent of the city’s population and has fueled a wave of new businesses, including Mexican ice cream shops and restaurants. Yet Ojeda believes her community’s rise is just beginning; real growth isn’t possible until immigration reform allows undocumented workers to contribute to the economy legally.
Ojeda is a first-generation Mexican-American who was born to undocumented parents and knows the economic and psychological toll of living in the shadows. Her mother, who came to the United States at age 17, received her legal residency five years ago and spent decades living in fear of being deported. As a single mom of five children, she worked in low-paying factory jobs and lacked the Social Security number needed to apply for low-income housing. She never learned English and relied on Ojeda to translate for her at the local health clinic, which didn’t have bilingual doctors. “After she had a C-section, I had to tell her everything she needed to do to take care of herself,” says Ojeda. “Latinos were never represented.”
I have a lot of friends who are Dreamers who are more American than me, but they might not have high-paying jobs, and they just want to contribute in a positive way to our country.
Ojeda would like to see Immigration reform that eliminates the economic barriers to the Hispanic community. For example, some of her friends who came to the United States illegally as children qualify for work permits but might not be able to afford the $465 biennial renewal fee under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. “I have a lot of friends who are Dreamers who are more American than me,” she says. “But they might not have high-paying jobs, and they just want to contribute in a positive way to our country.”
Ojeda hopes that comprehensive reform will also have a trickle-down effect that makes the entire Hispanic immigrant community feel more accepted in American culture. “Many smaller businesses lack an understanding of the confusing California labor laws and don’t know their rights,” says Ojeda, explaining that part of her job is to educate immigrant entrepreneurs about worker’s compensation and affordable healthcare plans. “I’ve seen cases where if businesses aren’t protected, they can be closed down,” she says.
Ojeda, who recently graduated from California State University San Marcos with a degree in sociology, hopes improved education will empower Hispanic business owners just as it helped her and her family. Her four siblings are all either college graduates or still in school. “I’ve always wanted to know why some Latinos were not achieving the American dream,” she says. “And it always comes down to limited education and lack of understanding of American culture and not knowing about the resources out there.” Immigration reform, she says, is an important first step.