Ciriac Alvarez Valle, a 22-year-old woman who immigrated to Utah from Mexico with her family as a 5-year-old, works with high school students who are going to be first-generation college students.
But in 650 days she’ll neither be eligible to work nor protected from deportation if the United States Congress doesn’t pass legislation to protect her and other Dreamers after the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program expires on March 6.
Congress can pass legislation that protects DACA recipients and creates a path to citizenship, she told government, community and industry representatives on Wednesday in Salt Lake City at a discussion of immigrants’ contribution to the state’s economy. The event kicked off a national campaign to encourage Congress to pass immigration reform, starting with Dreamers.
“If we don’t have a solution by the end of this year, we are going to see a human tragedy play out in our state, our community and our country,” Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams said.
Utah’s DACA-eligible population contributes more than $22 million in taxes annually, $13 million of which goes to state and local tax revenue in the state, according to the New American Economy (NAE), a bipartisan coalition of business and government leaders that supports immigration reform.
And in addition to paying taxes, immigrants bolster Utah’s workforce. NAE data show that 91.4 percent of the state’s DACA-eligible population (who are at least 16 years old) are employed.
“Approximately 1,000 DACA recipients — including the 9,700 who live in the state of Utah — will begin losing their work permits each day,” Wheelwright said.
Utah businesses and industries are already reporting a limited workforce, according to Derek Miller, the president and CEO of World Trade Center Utah.
The No. 1 complaint McAdams said he heard at a recent business summit was that companies struggle to find qualified, hard-working employees.
“Isn’t it nice when the right thing to do for business is also the right thing to do morally and ethically?” said Jason Mathis, the executive vice president of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce.
The idea that immigrants are stealing jobs is a myth, Jorge Dennis, the president of EnviroKleen, said, adding that the construction industry is losing people to retirement three times faster than it can hire.
“We can’t grow it inside our state fast enough,” Miller said.
Representatives from the Utah Restaurant Association and the Farm Bureau said they need more skilled, reliable employees.
“There is no way our industry can be successful as we can be without these people,” Melva Sine, president and CEO of Utah Restaurant Association said. “We very much support immigration reform. The sooner the better.”
She has talked with restaurant owners who said they would keep their establishments open longer if they had enough employees, she said.
“We cannot eliminate people who have the will to work, want the jobs, want to grow our economy, want to add to society in many ways, not just as workers but in associations,” Sine said.
The restaurant industry “cannot afford” to lose people who would be at risk to deportation without new legislation, she said.
Setbacks and red tape in the current system have delayed farm employees from working, according to Matthew Hargreaves, with the Utah Farm Bureau Federation.
Produce doesn’t wait for bureaucratic red tape delays, he said; even if employees can’t work, cows have to be milked when they’re ready. Fruits and vegetables have to be harvested when they’re ready. They can’t wait, Hargreaves said.
So the group is urging the the Utah Congressional delegation to vote to pass immigration reform by the end of the year.
Congress is considering several immigration-reform proposals after President Donald Trump announced in September that the DACA program would be phased out and told Congress to find a permanent solution for Dreamers.
DACA allows people who were brought into the United States as children to stay in the country, go to school, hold a work permit and get a driver license, as long as they reapply every two years. It also requires they pay taxes.
Although the expiration date for the program is March 6, Dreamers had to submit their applications before Oct. 5, to allow enough time for processing the permit, Alvarez Valle said.
She submitted her DACA renewal application before the deadline. Her best friend, along with 22,000 other young people, didn’t.
If Congress doesn’t pass a permanent solution, thousands of Dreamers will be out of work and at risk of deportation to countries they hardly — or don’t — know.
“There’s not really anywhere else to go,” Valle said. “I’ve been here 17 years. ... It’s not that I don’t love Mexico and hold it dear, it’s just not home.”