Victoria Matey came to the United States from Mexico at age 3. By age 15 she had been barred from applying for a part-time job, so she already had a vague idea what it meant to be undocumented. But Matey did not understand the full consequences until she was a high school senior in Kirkland, Washington, and unable to participate in a classroom tradition: Filling out a voter registration card in government class on her 18th birthday.
When Matey’s turn came, she ran out in tears. “I’m undocumented,” she told her teacher. “I can’t vote. I don’t even know if I can go to college.”
Matey is one of more than 750,000 young adults who are recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA). The designation gives her the temporary right to study and work in the United States. But it does not promise an easy path.
People think we’re here to use their services, but we’re helping them in ways they don’t even think about.
Today at 24, Matey, now a senior majoring in business management at Western Washington University in Bellingham, is succeeding — despite challenges. “It’s taken me a lot longer to graduate than I would have liked, but that’s because of financial reasons,” she says.
Washington is one of 20 states that allows undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition and one of five states that offers them financial help. But, because of her parents’ income — they work low-wage jobs at fast-food restaurants and a grocery store — Matey doesn’t qualify for assistance. And she can’t take out a student loan because her parents aren’t eligible to be co-signers.
Instead, Matey pays her $9,000 annual tuition by piecing together her parents’ contributions, her own earnings from a campus job, and a handful of scholarships.
As president of a campus advocacy group for undocumented students, she has spoken at two dozen conferences about the contributions that undocumented immigrants make in the United States. “It’s an absolute myth that we don’t pay taxes,” she says. In fact, research has found that undocumented immigrants contribute more than $178 billion in state and federal taxes and add more than $13 billion to the Social Security system. “We’re paying money into a system that we’ll never get back,” she says. “People think we’re here to use their services, but we’re helping them in ways they don’t even think about.”
As of 2014, Washington was among the top 10 states in terms of state and local taxes contributed by undocumented immigrants. A 2016 report from the nonpartisan Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy estimated that Washington’s undocumented immigrants contributed $292.2 million a year in state and local taxes; if granted full legal status, the amount would increase by more than $29.2 million.
Matey’s dream is to work for a nonprofit, using her education to serve others. In the meantime, she is motivated to fight for change. She would like to see immigration reform that provides a path to legalization for the millions of undocumented immigrants who are already in the country Were that to happen, the economic benefits would be sizable. Economists estimate the rising incomes would result in a $1.4 trillion growth in U.S. gross domestic product and an additional $791 billion in personal income for Americans over a ten-year period.
At school, Matey is pushing for the creation of an undocumented-student center and programs to offer people legal services and emergency funding. “We’re working for the greater good of our community,” she says. “People once told me I wouldn’t be able to go to college, but failure isn’t an option. I’m not going to stop now.”