Shortly after Jesus Perez began working as a social science research assistant at Johns Hopkins University, his 10-year-old brother asked for an ice-cream cone. Perez felt deep gratitude that he could say yes. As the undocumented son of Mexican immigrants, he didn’t have such luxuries when he was young. “Having that extra money to provide for a little kid is such a relief for me. I can say, ‘Hey, you’ve been doing great in school and I had a good week, so let’s enjoy life,’ ” he says.
Perez came to the United States from Mexico with his family in 1987, when he was 5 years old. His parents worked hard to provide the bare necessities for their four children. His late father cleaned malls his mother worked as a janitor in an office building.
Life for the family changed for the better shortly after Perez graduated from high school, in 2012. That year, the Department of Homeland Security began implementing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or DACA, which grants qualifying undocumented immigrants a renewable, temporary reprieve from deportation and allows them to legally work in the United States. “My mother screamed when she heard the news on television,” says Perez.
After filling out extensive paperwork about his family and his schooling, Perez received his work permit in March 2013. “For most people, getting a Social Security number is not a big deal, but for me it was a relief to be able to work,” he says. Without DACA, he never would have been hired to work at Johns Hopkins, one of the country’s most prestigious medical centers. Ninety percent of DACA-eligible individuals ages 16 and older are employed, and those who obtain a college degree earn an average of $30,000 per year. In 2017, the oldest DACA holders were only 36, meaning most are just starting out in their careers.
“Why are they playing with the lives of many Dreamers and many family members?”
Now, after taking his brother to school each morning, Perez works with focus groups to determine why young African American and Latino men have infrequent medical checkups. The reasons, they found, range from a lack of health insurance to a fear of immigration agents to a youthful sense of invulnerability. To address this, the team created an app to help young people find nearby clinics, directions, and transportation.
Perez also has an active volunteer life. Since 2008 he has donated his time to CASA, an organization that provides low-income immigrants with educational and economic opportunities. In addition, he works with a program called the Priceless Gown Project, which gives free prom dresses to low-income students.
Perez plans to attend college, to major in communications, and, one day, to buy a house for his mother. “I want to hand a pair of keys to my mom and say ‘This is your house.’ My mom’s dream is to have a big kitchen, because she loves to cook,” he says.
Perez says he is extremely grateful for the opportunity to create a better life for himself and his family. “I have been very blessed. I can’t put it into words. I never imagined myself working in an office. I’m grateful.”
But after the news broke in 2017 that DACA would be rescinded unless Congress took action, Perez was devastated. “Why are they playing with the lives of many Dreamers and of many family members?” he asks, noting that Dreamers often help support and care for family. Still, he was grateful for his colleagues at Johns Hopkins. “They told me, ‘We are here to support you and your family,’ “ he says. “To receive that love and care means a lot.”
Perez hopes the U.S. Congress will enact legislation to protects Dreamers. And he hopes the American people will make their voices heard, too. “At lunch, one of my colleagues said, ‘Jesus, we want to support you. What can we do to help?’ I told him, ‘Call your elected officials.’ ”
When Perez starts to lose heart, he thinks of his mother, who called him shortly after DACA’s future became uncertain. “She said, ‘We came to this country and worked with supervisors who discriminated against us. We didn’t know the language and couldn’t understand what our bosses were saying, but we did the work anyway.’ Those words coming from the person who gave birth to you motivates you even more.”