Eight years ago, I was living every college graduate’s nightmare: After spending so much time and money studying health science at Hillsborough Community College, I was stuck making minimum wage as a manager at a local shoe store. As an undocumented immigrant without a work permit, I didn’t have many other options.
Yet in 2012, my life changed for the better. That’s when a government program was created that gives young immigrants like me who came to the United States as children the legal right to work and live here without fear of deportation. Suddenly, I had a way to build a better life for myself. I received a Social Security number, which allowed me to get a driver’s license and apply for the kinds of jobs that let me use my education and give back in meaningful ways (and receive health insurance). Now I’m the lead organizer for Faith in Florida, a faith-based community organizing group in Tampa.
That’s why I was so devastated when President Donald Trump announced in September 2017 that he was ending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. I started bawling when I heard the news. Although I’d come so far, everything I’d accomplished was now at risk.
Still, I haven’t given up hope. This month, the U.S. House is scheduled to vote on the Dream and Promise Act that would provide permanent legal protections to the more than 1.3 million DACA-eligible people in this country and create a pathway to citizenship for us. (A bipartisan Dream Act was also introduced in the Senate, which is proof Congress recognizes this is something 76 percent of Americans want.) There are millions of immigrants who deserve permanent protections, and this is a step in the right direction.
As much as my DACA status has empowered me to improve my own life, I’m also grateful for the ability to help my family. We’re from the city of Guanajuato in central Mexico, where poverty rates are so high that a recent study estimated nearly 50 percent of children are forced to work. Unfortunately, it was the same situation when I left at age six. My parents wanted a better life for us and brought us to Florida so we could finish school while they worked tirelessly at low-paying agriculture jobs.
So I was thrilled when I got my current job and was able to help them buy their first home and literally turn on the lights for them. (In Hillsborough County, you need a Social Security number or valid passport to sign up for utilities like electric and water). My legal status was also a source of comfort for my whole family; if anything happened to my parents, my two sisters (one has DACA like me, and the other married an American and is now a permanent resident) and I would be here to take care of my 16-year-old brother who was born here and is also a citizen.
DACA doesn’t just help me give back to my family. I also give back to the economy. As a group, more than 1.2 million young immigrants who are eligible for DACA generate $23.4 billion in household income annually, $4 billion of which goes to state, local and federal taxes, according to the bipartisan immigration nonprofit New American Economy.
In Florida, where there are more than 87,00 DACA-eligible residents, we bring in $1.5 billion for the state economy and pay nearly $257 million in taxes. Also, nearly 4,000 of us are entrepreneurs creating jobs for other hard-working Floridians. And yet we could contribute so much more if we weren’t facing an uncertain future.
The Dream and Promise Act is the ray of hope I’m holding onto at the moment. As DACA did when it was first introduced, passing this bill would open up limitless possibilities for the immigrants who have long called this country home. Our fate is in the hands of Congress.
Nanci Palacios is a DACA recipient and lead organizer for Faith in Florida in Tampa.