In 2012, Carolina Perez was on the verge of getting a bachelor’s degree in psychology and sociology at Hunter College, in New York City, but she was depressed about her prospects. Born in Chile, Perez came to the United States with her family when she was 11 years old. Once in college, she realized that without legal status, she’d be unable to work in her field. “I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she says. “Was I going to continue waitressing for the rest of my life?”
But later that year, the Department of Homeland Security implemented Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a 2012 policy that allows qualifying undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children to defer deportation for renewable two-year periods and to work legally in the United States.
Perez’ prospects took a 180-degree turn. “Now every door was open. It was a feeling not just of relief but a new experience of having choices that I never had before,” she says. Perez 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.
If you have comprehensive immigration reform where you make sure there are background checks, that people pay their taxes and don’t take advantage of the system, those people, the dreamers and their parents, deserve a chance to be here.
Perez went on to get a master’s degree in school counseling and a certification in bilingual education. Now she is a high school counselor on Long Island, in New York. By working in her desired field, Perez hasn’t simply made life better for herself and her family, she is also filling a critical need. An estimated one in five Americans experiences a mental health issue, yet millions go without care. One reason is the critical shortage of healthcare professionals in the United States. Currently more than half of U.S. counties lack even a single practicing psychiatrist, and, given that one-quarter of psychiatrists practicing in the United States are already over the age of 65 and facing retirement, the number of Americans who don’t have ready access to mental healthcare is only expected to grow. Ninety percent of the DACA-eligible population 16 years old and older are employed, and those with college educations, such as Perez, fill crucial roles in the U.S. economy as accountants, teachers, nurses — and counselors.
Perez almost didn’t even attend college, due to her undocumented status. When she had begun looking at college applications, she was dismayed to see that they requested a Social Security number. “High school is when it hit me that I was undocumented,” she says. Concerned by how depressed their daughter seemed, Perez’ parents suggested she simply leave the space blank and apply anyway. A few months later, an acceptance letter from the City University of New York (CUNY) arrived in the mail. “When I got the letter, I ran up and down the stairs, screaming and crying,” Perez says. “It was an opportunity that I thought was impossible.”
When Perez enrolled at CUNY’s Hunter College, in Manhattan, she discovered a new version of the same hurdle: She would need a Social Security number to complete the internship required for a teaching license. “So they were saying you can pay all this money to get a degree, but you can’t get the internship you need to get a job. So I said, scratch that, and continued with psychology.”
Now a U.S. citizen through marriage, Perez is relieved that she isn’t personally affected by the uncertainty of DACA. President Donald Trump announced in September 2017 that the administration would phase out DACA by March 2018 unless Congress takes action. Her sister, however, who is studying to be a nurse, isn’t so lucky. “My sister is scared. My mom called me crying. It’s a feeling not of hopelessness, but helplessness,” she says. “If I wasn’t married, I could be losing my work permit and my career. To know that 800,000 people are going through this. I have no words.”
Perez tells her Long Island students her own story: The waitressing and other jobs she held throughout high school and college while helping to care for her cousins and sister. “I always tell them it’s possible,” she says. “They just have to find a way to take advantage of the opportunities.”
Perez hopes the U.S. government will continue to support young immigrants. She also thinks that U.S. immigration policy needs to look beyond DACA and find a more permanent and comprehensive solution. She thinks citizenship should be awarded on the basis of hard work and character, not marital status. “I’m not saying amnesty,” she says. “But if you have comprehensive immigration reform where you make sure there are background checks, that people pay their taxes and don’t take advantage of the system, those people — the Dreamers and their parents — deserve a chance to be here.”
“We are called the Dreamers, but the first dreamers were our parents,” she says. “They were the ones who had a dream. They were the ones who raised us to be dreamers.”