Salt Lake City—In September, Pres. Donald Trump gave Congress six months to find a more permanent solution for young, undocumented “Dreamers.” On Wednesday, about halfway through that window, local leaders gathered to discuss the increasingly dire situation facing Dreamers and the vital economic and human reasons for protecting them.
“Everybody around this table recognizes this country’s immigration system is broken, outdated and not serving the needs of our country,” said Tim Wheelwright, an immigration attorney with Durham Jones & Pinegar, and a participant of the roundtable. “The need for immigration reform has never been greater and the opportunity for immigration reform has never been greater, as well.”
Trump’s September edict also included the phasing out of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, a Pres. Barack Obama executive order that gave temporary, renewable work permits and protections for immigrants who came to the United States before age 16, had been in the country since 2007 or before, were not older than 31, and had not committed any major crimes, including driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. In Utah alone, there are more than 14,000 DACA-eligible immigrants. Due to various factors, including expense and complexity of the paperwork, around 9,700 of those immigrants have DACA protections, Wheelwright said.
He also said 91.4 percent of DACA recipients are employed and in Utah contribute approximately $22 million in taxes. Of those DACA recipients, about two-thirds are able to get better jobs because of it, and more than half are able to obtain jobs with health insurance and other benefits. Should Congress fail to pass a replacement, Wheelwright said 1,000 DACA recipients will begin losing their benefits per day starting on the March 5 deadline. Some parts of DACA have already expired because of the sheer length of time it takes to get and renew that status.
“DACA has produced tangible economic benefits for the state of Utah,” Wheelwright said. “Unless Congress acts fast, the Dreamers will once again be left empty-handed.”
Wheelwright also noted that in a national poll, the overwhelming majority of respondents, regardless of political affiliation, supported protections on these productive, educated immigrants who had grown up in the United States.
Stan Lockhart, former chairman of the Utah Republican Party, said the process for gaining citizenship—or protection—needed to be streamlined to help immigrants who are, for all intents and purposes, Americans, gain legal status.
“These young people deserve the same rights and privileges our own kids do. They went to the same schools with them, played the same sports with them, did the same extracurricular activities with them,” he said. “They certainly deserve the opportunity to go to college without being deported, especially because many of them have no idea what life is like in the place their parents came from.”
Jean Hill, government liaison for the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, agreed, and said while their parents may have broken laws to come to this country, the Dreamers themselves are innocent.
“We just want to remember who we are talking about when we’re talking about Dreamers,” Hill said. “We need to recognize the kids are not only non-compliant in the violation of law that occurred [in immigrating illegally], but that their parents felt strongly enough about giving them a better life that they broke these rules and came to a place where they didn’t speak the language or understand the culture.”
The economy is also dependent on legal immigrant labor, said representatives from the restaurant and agricultural industries, and making it easier for illegal immigrants to work legally in the country is a boon for Utah and the nation.
“We need skilled, reliable, legal workers. That’s a challenge because of the system we have now,” said Matt Hargreaves, vice president of communications for the Utah Farm Bureau, noting that in one poll, 52 percent of farmers and ranchers said their workers came up to 22 days late because of complications in getting work permits, which ultimately represented $300 million of lost output for the farmers and ranchers.
Melva Sine, president and CEO of the Utah Restaurant Association, said restaurants all over the state are facing worker shortages. If there were more workers, these restaurants could grow much faster than they’re able to now, she said, and conversely, any policy or lack thereof that leads to more deportations would devastate the industry.
“What we need in our industry are people who have the will to work. We cannot eliminate people who have the will to work,” she said. “For us as an industry, we cannot afford [to lose] 8,000 people [to deportation], or any thousands of people. … It is not a win for anyone if we deny these people the opportunity to have the American Dream.”
Immigration policy and reform has been a looming topic for lawmakers for years, but never with such a dire deadline as the one coming on March 5.
“Congress has kicked the can down the road for so long, but we’re at the end of the road,” said Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams. “If we don’t have a solution by the end of the year, we’re going to see a human tragedy in Utah and this nation.”
One of the biggest reasons immigration reform has failed to go forward is that too many politicians see it as a pawn in a political game against their opponents rather than a policy affecting the daily lives and livelihoods of thousands of people, said Jorge Dennis, president of EnviroKleen. Those political leaders also frequently push for certain aspects of reform that do not reflect the needs or wants of the people who will be affected most, he said.
“It’s very frustrating to see immigration being wielded as a weapon by both sides when it suits them,” he said. “It’s a human issue. It’s an individual and family issue. It’s an economic issue. It is not a political issue, and it should stop being used as a weapon. It does require political action on a federal level.”
Alex Guzman, chair of the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and himself an immigrant, said the work ethic and diverse backgrounds that the Dreamers possess make them assets to the economy and workforce of today and the future.
“When we talk about the Dreamers, we’re talking about the very best immigrants America can have,” he said. “We’re talking about bilingual, bi-cultural, well-trained people and the group that is going to be the business owners of the future.”
Also among the attendees was Ciriac Alvarez Valle, a recent college graduate and DACA recipient. Valle immigrated to the United States with her parents from Mexico when she was 5 years old, and was president of her senior class at Highland High School. She received a small scholarship to the University of Utah, and worked to save up the rest. In May, she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science and a minor in sociology, and now works at the Consulate of Mexico in Salt Lake City. Since graduating high school, she has also helped mentor teenage first-generation immigrants to help them navigate the tricky paths of planning their future.
While she is quick to point out that her story is not the same as every Dreamer’s—Dreamers also often hail from African or Southeast Asian countries, in addition to Latin American ones, and each has come with different circumstances—she noted that it was unusual to be participating in a discussion about the group to which she belonged. Usually, she said, such discussions are made without the input of those at their center.
Valle also said that she was hopeful for positive reform from Congress, but was worried, too. One of her friends, who was studying to become a teacher, missed the final deadline to begin the DACA renewal process and will be losing her work permit and protections in May. Valle herself, who did make the recent deadline, still has only 655 days left on her permit.
“It’s important that we pass legislation by the end of the year, because it takes so long [to renew DACA protections],” she said, noting that the process takes roughly six months and costs almost $500 to do. “Every single day, people lose the ability to pay for their houses, their cars, the things that we consider to be normal.”
In addition, immigrants her age and who also came to the United States as children may not have been compliant in the breaking of laws, but their parents, extended family and neighbors often were. Valle said while she recognizes crimes have been committed in those cases, deporting those otherwise non-criminal members of that complicit generation would be hurting the Dreamers by taking away their support system.
“I understand that border security is important to Conservatives, but I also don’t want to support a program that would encourage deportation of the families and people around me who have educated me and helped me get to this point so I can talk to you today,” she said.
Wheelwright said while the deadline is a new factor in the discussion, the facets of the problem and the need to fix it are not.
“This is not just something we decided [to come together and do] a few weeks ago,” he said. “We’ve been around this table for years saying the same thing, the same talking points, the same arguments. The only thing missing is action. Now is the time to make something happen.”