In 2012, when Leonel Nieto, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, received the legal right to live and work in the United States, he quickly began achieving the milestones of American adulthood: He bought a house, took out a car loan, and earned a master’s degree in information technology to support his wife and young son. Nieto, who arrived in Salt Lake City from Mexico at age 11 with his mother and two older brothers, had received Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a policy granting qualifying undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children certain rights of temporary resident status.
“DACA made a huge difference in my life,” says Nieto, who is one of Utah’s 13,600 DACA recipients. Before he received the authorization to work, Nieto was getting by on a job willing to pay him under-the-table, as a restaurant cashier. He managed to earn enough to attend Salt Lake Community College and the University of Utah, where he studied sociology and economics. But after receiving DACA, he was able to take a full-time job as an information technology manager at the Catholic community service nonprofit where he had been volunteering. “DACA gave me peace of mind,” he says. “For a least a little while, I felt like I was American. It gave us the opportunity to show others that immigrants are good people and contribute to society.” Ninety percent of the DACA-eligible population 16 years old and older are employed, and combined these Dreamers pay $3 billion in taxes every year and annually pay almost $2.5 billion into the Social Security and Medicare funds, critical social programs that benefit all Americans.
All we want to do is show our employers and neighbors our potential.
Now Nieto is filled with dread. President Donald Trump announced in September 2017 that the administration would phase out DACA by March 2018 unless Congress takes action. As the sole supporter of his wife and 5-year-old son, Nieto feels the world is on his shoulders. “It’s been very hard to wake up every day, and listen to the news, and realize that nothing has resolved itself. You feel such a sense of defeat,” he says. “We just want a resolution. Why won’t Congress move if the majority of Americans want the same things we immigrants want?” A February NPR/ Ipsos poll showed that two-thirds of Americans support giving immigrants who arrived to the United States as children permanent legal status.
Nieto’s family drove him across the border in 1996, looking for better economic opportunity. Although he arrived without English skills and attended a school where few teachers spoke Spanish, he became the first child in his family to graduate high school. After, he worked in construction for several years to help his mother, a seamstress.
“When the president announced DACA was ending, everything came crashing down,” Nieto says. “Without a permanent solution, we’re scared we’ll be in the same situation again. All we want to do is show our employers and neighbors our potential. We are Americans, and when given the opportunity, we work hard to raise our families and give back to the community.”