When Radi finished high school, she longed to go to college. But as an undocumented immigrant, she didn’t have the same opportunities as her friends, and for years she waited tables at a local restaurant. Things finally changed with the implementation of 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. Radi was able to take a better-paying job as a legal assistant, pay her way through community college, and even buy a house for her parents. “It was a complete 180 for my life,” she says. “I blossomed personally, and professionally, and educationally, too.”
Thanks to DACA, Radi is now finishing her associate’s degree in business administration and plans to start on a bachelor’s degree next year. Once she graduates, she hopes to open her own restaurant and join the ranks of the 17,275 immigrant entrepreneurs operating businesses in Indiana. “I’d love to be an entrepreneur. That’s my dream right now,” she says.
It’s a dream that for many years seemed unreachable. Radi has been in the United States since she was 7 years old, when she came to join her family in northern Indiana. Two decades later, Radi says she feels more at home in America than she would in Mexico, but knows she’s been held back by her immigration status. Radi had been a good student, and got numerous offers from colleges she would have loved to attend, but as an undocumented immigrant she was ineligible for many scholarships and loans. “I realized — I don’t have a Social Security number, and I don’t think I’m going to be able to go to school,” Radi says.
Soon after Radi graduated high school — in 2008, just as the downturn began — her father found himself out of work. “I just decided to get a job,” Radi says. “My mom and I wound up paying the bills for quite a while.” Radi waited tables and did other low-paying jobs for several years until, soon after she turned 22, DACA was implemented. Within a few months, she had obtained a job as a legal assistant for the same lawyer who had helped her file her DACA paperwork. “I remember driving home in tears because I couldn’t believe I had this opportunity,” she says. “It was a huge difference — it changed my life completely.”
People like me, who have DACA, we’re contributing a lot right now, putting money into the economy.
Radi says she still thinks fondly of Mexico, but knows the United States is her home. There’s no question, she says, that this is where she wants to start a business and build a career. “It’s where I grew up, and was educated, and where I see a future for myself,” she says.
Radi’s DACA status also allowed her to get a driver’s license. “I didn’t have to be fearful when I left the house,” she says. Like many of her friends, she frets about whether older people she knows, who can’t qualify for DACA, will be arrested by immigration officials. “They need a way to get work permits,” she says. “There’s so much fear in our community. There needs to be a change.”
Radi hopes that Congress will pass legislation to preserve DACA and provide a path to citizenship for other immigrants. President Donald Trump announced in September 2017 that the administration would phase out DACA by March 2018 unless Congress takes action. “People are here trying to make a better life,” she says. “We understand immigration is a huge issue, and that the government is afraid of just legalizing everybody. But we also know our parents aren’t criminals. We’re just trying to make a living for ourselves.”
Radi understands why some people think she shouldn’t be in the United States, but she wants to prove them wrong by making a positive contribution. “People like me, who have DACA, we’re contributing a lot right now, putting money into the economy, and buying houses or cars,” she says. Ninety percent of the DACA-eligible population 16 years old and older is employed, and combined these Dreamers pay $3 billion in taxes every year. Of those employed, 4.5 percent are entrepreneurs with a combined annual business income of $659 million, a significant boost to local economies across the country. “We’re showing, by being able to qualify for DACA, that we’re behaving, going to school, working, staying out of trouble,” she says. “That’s all we want: to build a future for ourselves, in the country we grew up in and call home.”