Opinion: Utah Dreamers like me want to work. The government shouldn’t stand in the way.

My heart breaks for the 1,000 estimated new high school graduates in Utah who are experiencing what I went through.

It’s hard to put into words what the right to work means when you’re a young adult. I’ve always wanted to work in a clothing store, and I was thrilled to get a job at a sportswear shop in Park City. Last year I was promoted to supervisor and given extra responsibility. I’m proud of my work. I make sure my team members and I offer excellent customer service and create a nice atmosphere in the store.

What makes my job so meaningful to me is that just three years ago, when I graduated from Heber High School, I knew what it was like to not have one. I came here from Mexico when I was 3 years old and grew up in the Utah school system. But without documentation, I didn’t have the right to work. I lived with a constant uneasy feeling about my future.

I remember how excited my friends were about the start of summer. But as they chatted about their jobs and college plans, I was miserable. My only option at the time was under-the-table babysitting jobs. I felt completely left out.

That’s why my heart breaks for the 1,000 estimated new high school graduates in Utah who are experiencing what I went through: They are graduating without the ability to get a summer job or help pay for college.

I was thrilled when President Joe Biden recently announced plans last month to help recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and other Dreamers qualify for visas if we graduate from a U.S. college and receive a job offer. But these executive actions exclude the younger generations who were too young to apply to the DACA program before it was shut down or those who haven’t gone to college yet.

Undocumented immigrants can’t receive financial aid. That means many of us can’t afford college without the ability to work. If you’ve been to college, you know it costs thousands of dollars for tuition every semester, not to mention living expenses.

My older sister and brother qualified for the DACA program that gives young immigrants work authorization. But the program had stopped accepting applications when it was my turn to apply. Then a miracle happened: In between the time the program resumed in 2020 and before a federal judge halted it again a year later, I got my application approved. My life completely changed.

I can’t tell you how amazing it feels to make my own money. I was able to move out of my parents’ house and get a home with my sister. I’ve traveled to Puerto Rico and learned how to snowboard on my days off. I started dreaming about the future.

I’m also surprised how much it’s changed me psychologically. Before DACA, I didn’t earn a lot with my babysitting jobs. I hated not being able to afford going out with my friends and thinking of myself as “different” when I was just as American as they were. I also didn’t want to ask my parents for money when they were struggling during the pandemic.

When people asked me about my plans, I always said “I didn’t know.” That was the truth. I had no idea how I would pay for college. I’m still trying to figure out my goals, but I have hope now. I like helping people and working with customers, so I’m brainstorming about opening my own business someday.

It doesn’t make sense for teachers, coaches and counselors to tell us to “follow our dreams” and then face a policy that doesn’t allow us to do that. It also doesn’t make sense for Utah taxpayers to pay for our public education and when we’re not able to give back.

Although I’m grateful for DACA, restoring that policy isn’t a long-term solution, either. That’s why Congress needs to take action to offer a permanent pathway for an entire category of people who have lived here for most of their lives and call this country home. It’s not fair to make their ability to be here dependent on a college diploma or a job offer.

We are Utahns who have been educated in Utah and want to contribute to Utah. Let’s make sure new policies and programs include us all.

Marisol Cuevas is a retail supervisor in Park City.

Marisol Cuevas is a graduate of Heber High School and a retail supervisor in Park City.

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