Since I was 15 years old, I’ve always felt anxious about looking for a job. I worried an employer might discover I was an undocumented immigrant. For nearly a decade, I managed to slide under the radar and take whatever jobs I could get in construction, restaurants and hotel housekeeping. But I always dreamed of working with a computer because technology was my interest.
Fortunately, in 2012, at age 25, I finally got the chance to know what job security feels like. That’s when a government program that gives young immigrants like me who came the United States as children the legal right to work and live here without fear of deportation was created. I immediately found the perfect office job working for CASA, a nonprofit offering services like workforce development for immigrants and community organizing and worked my way up to my current position as the Virginia state director.
When President Trump announced in September 2017 he was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, I worried many would have to deal with the anxiety I faced. But I have new hope. This month, the House is scheduled to vote on the Dream and Promise Act that would provide permanent legal protections to the more than 800,000 DACA recipients in the U.S. as well as immigrants who are here under temporary status because of dangerous conditions in their home countries.
Receiving my DACA status allowed me to grow as a person and as a professional in ways I hadn’t imagined. I was able to get my driver’s license so I could drive to work and help financially support my mom and younger siblings. Today, through my job at CASA, I’ve met with members of Congress, political candidates, even Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg who founded the immigration advocacy group FWD.us, to advocate for the needs of our community.
We all benefit by immigrants living and working here. Just look at how the DACA-eligible population contributes to the economy. In 2017, more than 93% of the roughly 1.2 million DACA-eligible residents living in the United States were employed, according to New American Economy. We generate $23.4 billion in annual income for the national economy — $4 billion of which goes toward state, local and federal taxes. In Virginia alone, the nearly 25,000 of us eligible for DACA earned $449.9 million in income and paid $76 million in taxes. And we’re poised to fill labor shortages in key industries, such as health care and construction. Of course, our dignity is not measured by any numerical value. But we are part of the working class of people who keep Virginia moving forward.
I was 10 years old when my mom brought my siblings and me from a small town in Mexico to reunite with my father, who’d moved to Arizona a year earlier to find work in the hospitality industry. He couldn’t support our family of three (at the time) on his school teacher salary in Mexico. A few years later, we moved to Virginia to be closer to my mom’s side of the family.
Without some path to residency, I’m worried we could undo all the progress we’ve made since those dark days, especially for future generations who want to go to college and realize their potential. In-state tuition wasn’t granted to Virginia Dreamers until 2014, so I missed out on studying at Virginia Tech because I couldn’t afford the out-of-state rates available for immigrants at the time.
But in most cases, those who can go to college earn more and invest more back in the community by purchasing homes and paying taxes; in Virginia, a full-time worker with a bachelor’s degree typically makes an annual salary of $65,000 compared with $35,000 for those with a high school diploma or its equivalent, according to a report from the Commonwealth Institute.
If DACA remains permanently shuttered and Congress doesn’t give us another way to stay here, I won’t have a choice but to return to living in the shadows and continue advocating for a solution. I’m urging our lawmakers to pass the Dream and Promise Act and give immigrants a chance to thrive in our adoptive home.
Luis Angel Aguilar, a beneficiary of DACA, is the Virginia state director of CASA.