Lexington Herald-Leader Opinion: I’m a Dreamer fighting for civil rights – and my place in America

The first time I boarded a U.S. domestic flight, I was 17 years old. I was traveling to Denver to present at a National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC) conference, and I beamed as I showed my ID and was waved through security.

As a Dreamer, brought here from El Salvador when I was five, it was a huge moment for me. Until the launch of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program in 2012, I’d lived as an undocumented immigrant, avoiding public places like airports, and wary of strangers who might ask to see my papers.

The DACA program allowed me to do more than just catch planes. Free to live and work in America, I could start planning my future. I wanted to serve my community as a lawyer or policy advocate, so I completed a bachelor’s degree in political science at Eastern Kentucky University (EKU), then began a master’s degree program in public administration. While studying, I’ve also advocated for the rights of immigrants and minorities, lobbying state lawmakers, volunteering at a Latino leadership camp, and translating for Spanish-speaking clients at a legal aid clinic. In 2015, I visited the White House as Kentucky’s student representative for Hispanic Heritage Month, and in 2017 I was named Student of the Year by the NCHC in recognition of my advocacy work. Recently, I even won a seat on the board of the ACLU of Kentucky.

My successes were made possible by DACA – and that’s why it was heartbreaking to see President Trump announce plans to end the program in 2017. Like 800,000 other young people, I’m living in limbo while lawyers fight over the program’s future, and praying for the success of new House and Senate legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for Dreamers.

The success of that effort is important for communities all over America. More than four-fifths of the DACA-eligible population have graduated high school and attended some college, according to New American Economy, and 93 percent are employed, earning $23.4 billion a year in 2017. We’re a vital part of the economy and gaining skills that will be urgently needed in the workforce of tomorrow.

Knowing that I could be at risk of deportation is especially scary for me: I’m gay, and although I’ve been embraced by my peers at EKU, homosexuality isn’t so readily accepted in El Salvador. Killings and violence against LGBTQ people are on the rise there, and I worry about what would happen to me if I were deported. I fear for the safety of other Dreamers as well – 8.6 percent of us identify as LGBTQ, and many of us were born in countries far less tolerant than America.

My family’s story shows how dangerous life in El Salvador can be. There, my parents were successful business owners, running a pawn shop, a jewelry store, and a bus company. That made them a target for gangs, and my father and grandfather were kidnapped. After we paid the ransom, we sought asylum in the U.S., but our application was denied. Feeling desperate, we came on tourist visas and never left.

My parents didn’t speak English, but found work at fast food restaurants in Nashville and later Louisville. With little money for rent, we lived in roach-infested apartments, but my parents worked hard to give me and my younger brother a better life. Now I’m determined to show that their sacrifices weren’t for nothing. I want to achieve as much as I can in this country – and spend my career giving back to the less fortunate.

That will only be possible if Congress comes together to protect Dreamers. We show our love and appreciation for America every day by working hard, paying taxes, creating jobs, and serving our communities. That’s why I’m asking lawmakers to return our love, and let us keep working to contribute to the country we consider our home.

Omar Salinas Chacón is a graduate student studying public administration at Eastern Kentucky University.

Read the full opinion piece at kentucky.com.

About NAE

New American Economy is a bipartisan research and advocacy organization fighting for smart federal, state, and local immigration policies that help grow our economy and create jobs for all Americans. More…