Brad Figueroa’s parents brought him to the United States from Mexico when he was 2 years old. Six years later, his father died, leaving Figueroa’s mother to raise him alone, working service jobs to make ends meet.
When Figueroa, now in his mid 30s, came of age, he immediately began working to help his mother, piecing together low-paying gigs that would hire an undocumented immigrant. “I spent a lot of years doing random jobs under the table to survive and help my mom with bills,” Figueroa says. “Being in Alaska is really bad for someone that is in this kind of situation. Technically, it’s like being on an island. It was really isolating for me not being able to do anything.”
Finally, in 2013, Figueroa got the opportunity to contribute to the state in a more meaningful way. That is the year he gained 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. Today Figueroa is working for the state of Alaska as an engineer technician. “I started out as a materials tester, ensuring the safety of materials that we are using to build a road, or a bridge, or an airport,” he says. “Now I’m a grade inspector at night for a short highway project.”
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 almost $2.5 billion into the Social Security and Medicare funds, critical social programs that benefit all Americans. In addition, Dreamers like Figeroa fill a critical, nationwide need for workers with training in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. The United States is projected to face a shortage of 1 million STEM workers by 2022, a deficit that threatens America’s ability to compete in the international economy. At the same time, some 27,000 DACA-eligible individuals 18 years old or older have held STEM positions.
“My goal, if DACA continues, is that I really want to go to school and get my engineering degree,” says Figueroa, who would like to work for the government on projects that benefit the public good.
If DACA doesn’t go through, I am not going to be able to go later and say goodbye.
Unfortunately, the White House announced it is ending DACA unless Congress takes action, something Congress has so far failed to do. Now, even if Figeroa had started taking college courses — something he delayed in order to work as much as possible while DACA still existed — it is highly unlikely he would even be able to put his engineering skills to use to help a state agency, or any U.S. employer. “DACA always felt unstable, like it could be taken away at any moment,” he says. “I’ve just been so conditioned to be afraid and extremely cautious. Every decision I make forces me to think of every possible scenario and every possible outcome. It’s exhausting.”
Figueroa also worries about his family. His older sister lives in Mexico and has advanced cancer. “It is sad for me, because the doctors gave her about a year,” he says. “If DACA doesn’t go through, I am not going to be able to go later and say goodbye.”
Most importantly, Figueroa simply wants to continue living and working in the state he loves. “All the people in my situation, all we want is to come out and really feel like everybody else,” Figueroa says. “My DACA expires in December of this year, so I have the option to stay here and see what happens, or I can leave before it expires and go to a place like Oregon that is a little bit friendlier with people in my situation. That is what I have to plan for. I own a house, so I need to be able to have it ready to sell in case I leave. Everything is so uncertain right now.”