Our freshman year at Ball State University, my best friend and college roommate Erika Espinoza revealed a closely guarded secret. She was an undocumented immigrant. Fleeing poverty, her parents brought her from a rural town outside of Mexico City to Indiana when she was 9. Fortunately, in 2012, during her senior year of high school, she qualified for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which allows young Dreamers like Erika to live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation.
After Erika revealed her immigration status to me, I began to understand the challenges she faces. Though she has no choice over her legal status, she is blamed for it and grapples daily with the agony and uncertainty it brings. I saw depression weigh her down after Donald Trump won the presidency on an anti-immigration platform. I saw the fear in her eyes after he rescinded DACA in the fall of 2017, which threatens her ability to legally work and live in the only country she knows as her home. At every turn, I’ve done my best to reassure her that God walks with us through the darkness.
I’m amazed by my friend’s fortitude. In college, she studied hard and encouraged me to do the same. She excelled in her journalism program and went on to land amazing internships with Vox Media, Univision and Time Inc. A part-time job with the Arizona Republic allowed her to be part of the team that won a 2018 Pulitzer Prize for reporting about the border wall. And while she was immersed in the rigors of graduate school, she also became an entrepreneur, co-launching a multi-media start up in Muncie called Deftly Creative.
A few weeks ago, I celebrated Erika’s graduation from Ball State’s master’s program in Emerging Media Design and Development. The event was bittersweet; I got pregnant during college and left school just a few credits short of completing my degree in Spanish. And yet watching Erika’s achievements these past few years has inspired me to pursue my dreams: operating a pastry and coffee food truck. Erika has often encouraged me to go for it, pushing me to go back to school to study business and refine my recipes. She has even offered to design my business logo. Because of Erika, for the first time, I’m starting to see entrepreneurship as a real possibility for my future.
Erika, like so any talented Dreamers, has everything this country might want in a recent graduate: talent, determination and optimism. About 93 percent of the DACA-eligible population is already employed and more than 43,000 of them have started their own businesses, according to New American Economy. And still, our political leaders keep them in limbo, putting their futures here at risk.
I’m thrilled that in June the House of Representatives passed the Dream and Promise Act, which would give Dreamers a pathway to citizenship, but the real challenge is in the Senate. I’m urging Congress to see this bill through. We don’t just want Dreamers contributing to our nation; we need them. Much like Erika, these young people are making their communities better by launching businesses, bettering the world around them and inspiring citizens like me to do the same.
Aileen Perez is a stay-at-home mom in Noblesville, and is looking to complete her degree at Ball State in the future.