Dreamers who are allowed to stay in the US through the DACA program could have a large impact on Georgia's economy if they could access affordable higher education in the state.
Dreamers who are allowed to stay in the US through the DACA program could have a large impact on Georgia's economy if they could access affordable higher education in the state. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

With one of the largest DACA-eligible populations in the country, Georgia’s economy could improve with easier and more affordable access to higher education in the state’s public college system.

Earlier this month, when a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to restore the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, I could finally breathe. Even after the Supreme Court stopped Trump from overturning DACA this summer, the White House continued its assault on the program—and on 660,000 young undocumented immigrants including myself. 

The new ruling lets an additional 300,000 Dreamers apply, giving them the legal right to live and work without constantly fearing detainment by ICE. These newly-empowered young people have the potential to bolster the economy—especially in my home state of Georgia. But that requires a shift in state policy and a senate willing to take bold, historic action.

Georgia has one of the largest DACA-eligible populations in the country—more than 46,500 residents, according to the immigration nonprofit New American Economy. But just 1% have been able to enroll in Georgia’s higher education system. That’s because, since 2008, undocumented students have had to pay out of state tuition—typically three times as high as in-state residents—even if they’ve graduated from local high schools. Meanwhile, students from Florida, Alabama, and South Carolina whose families haven’t paid a cent in taxes, can get tuition waivers. 

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This is hurting the state. I know so many Dreamers who’ve left Georgia to attend college elsewhere because it was cheaper. That’s a waste of the money Georgia invested in their K-12 education and it’s causing unnecessary brain drain. If more of us could access in-state tuition, an additional 3,744 undocumented students could enroll in college, boosting our state and local taxes by $3.4 million. These students would earn an additional $27.6 million in spending power annually, which they could then invest back into the local economy. They’d also help fill critical positions, especially in STEM industries.

We want to contribute, but it’s a fight every step of the way. I moved to Georgia from Mexico at age 11 and dreamed of going to college. As an undocumented immigrant, I knew my options were limited. But I had wonderful public school teachers and parents willing to work multiple jobs to afford my tuition. With their support, I enrolled at Kennesaw State University and began pursuing a major in political science. 

During my senior year, in 2010, I was pulled over by campus police, arrested for driving without a license and put into an ICE detention center. I sat there for 37 days, missing over a month’s worth of assignments and exams and awaiting my fate: Would I be sent back to a country I barely remembered? I was 21, scared, and alone. My parents and I had worked hard and sacrificed so much for my future. I feared it was all for nothing. Eventually, my case garnered national attention and ICE deferred my deportation until I finished my degree.

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It was a relief, but I’d inadvertently hurt my fellow Dreamers. My case fanned the flames of an anti-immigration wave that had already prompted Georgia to pass a “show-me-your-papers” bill that same year. A few months later, state leaders also voted to ban undocumented immigrants from attending the state’s top public universities, including the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, Georgia College & State University and the Medical College of Georgia. I felt terrible. 

Then the following year something unexpected happened: DACA was announced. 

Suddenly, scores of Dreamers could move forward with their lives. Today, over half a million of us are considered essential workers, with nearly 62,000 in healthcare and 480,000 in food service, agriculture and construction. Those of us who’ve been able to attend college and graduate school are heavily represented in the sciences: 43 percent of DACA-eligible students pursuing advanced degrees have an undergraduate STEM degree and 46 percent have a degree in healthcare-related field, according to a study by NAE and the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration.

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Like so many of these Dreamers, I have the potential to make considerably more money, enter a higher tax bracket, purchase a home, and positively impact my community. But DACA has always been a temporary status. It does not offer a path to citizenship, and recipients must reapply every two years. 

Investing in law school, as I’d like to do, doesn’t make sense. An anti-DACA case is currently before a judge in Texas. And another anti-immigrant president could try to end the program. There’s just not enough security. 

For the sake of our state’s economy, Georgia must rethink its education policies and help Dreamers access college. For the sake of our national economy, the next Senate must support a pathway to citizenship. This should not be a partisan issue: 80% of Republicans believe that Dreamers like me deserve permanent protections. But, unfortunately, this has become a partisan issue. And that means that only a Democratic majority in both houses can save us. 

READ MORE: More Americans Than Ever Support Expanding Immigration. Trump Is Still Using COVID-19 to Gut It.

So I’m asking: If you can vote, vote in the Georgia Senate runoff elections on Jan. 5. 

This Christmas, I will celebrate being newlyweds with my American-born husband. I will revel in the excitement of decorating our first home. But without a pathway to citizenship, the fear of deportation hangs over our heads. I think about starting a family one day and having to tell my children that their mother could be deported. It’s terrible. 

My heart still pounds when I think about the officer who approached my car that day on campus. The only identification I had for him was my Mexican passport, long expired. That useless document says everything about who I am and where I belong. This is my home. And I’ll never stop fighting for it.