Jenny Wilson: Utah’s Dreamers stepped up during the pandemic. Now Congress needs to protect them

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) "I am unafraid," said Ciriac Alvarez, a DACA dreamer and University of Utah graduate of Political Science and Sociology. Hundreds of We are Dreamers, a Utah pro-Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) group, marched in solidarity from the Utah Federal Building to the State Capitol with undocumented immigrants who will be affected by the end of DACA.

In so many ways, the challenges of COVID-19 brought out the best in Utahns. From the health care workers who risked their lives caring for coronavirus patients, to the teachers keeping distracted children engaged through a computer screen, to the many other layers of “essential workers” across our municipalities, everyday people stepped up to make sacrifices.

But many people don’t realize that 15,000 of these Utah workers face an existential battle that reaches far beyond the pandemic. They are Dreamers, young adults without legal status who immigrated to the state as children. Most came at age 6 or younger and have been here for decades. They grew up in our communities, graduated from our public schools and work in every sector of our society. Still, every day, they fear deportation.

However, I’m hopeful that change is on the horizon. Last week, the House of Representatives passed the Dream and Promise Act, which would give the nation’s 1.3 million Dreamers a long-anticipated pathway to citizenship. Now we need the U.S. Senate to do the same so that these young people can legally become the Americans they already are in heart and spirit.

As mayor of Salt Lake County for the past two years — and as a member of the County Council for 10 years before that — I’ve developed a deep appreciation for what these hard-working young people contribute to our state. As small children, they learned a new language and culture. Today, they thrive in their adopted country. Nearly 95 percent are employed and pay $60 million in federal, state and local taxes yearly, according to New American Economy. They start businesses at higher rates than their U.S.-born peers, and they step up to serve when called upon.

In Utah, 2,400 Dreamers have done essential jobs in health care, education, food service, manufacturing, transportation and delivery during the pandemic. We will continue to need their skills when COVID is behind us, filling our state’s shortages in doctors, nurses and educators. One report estimates that Utah is currently short 1,600 educators, a chronic problem that is expected to worsen as our state’s population grows.

Yet year after year, political gridlock and ping-pong policies have refused to give them permanent protections and a pathway to citizenship. For years, thousands have lived in legal limbo and emotional anguish. It’s incredibly cruel and not who we are as Utahns and Americans. We need a real solution now.

The Salt Lake County Mayor’s Office for New Americans has been helping our state’s immigrants integrate, and during the coronavirus pandemic, the office has been critical in providing timely guidance and information to vulnerable immigrant populations. And our United for Citizenship initiative helps eligible immigrants navigate the naturalization process.

But for Dreamers to realize their full place in our society, Congress must create new legislation. That’s why I’m calling on U.S. Sens. Mitt Romney and Mike Lee to support the Dream and Promise Act and encourage their colleagues to do the same.

Dreamers didn’t choose to come to here as children, but they have become vital to our communities. They sacrificed for Utahns in our time of need precisely because Dreamers are Utahns. Let’s give them the support they deserve and do right by them once and for all.

(Screen capture via Salt Lake County) Mayor Jenny Wilson delivers the 2021State of Salt Lake County address in a video shared Thursday, Feb. 25.

Jenny Wilson is the mayor of Salt Lake County.