Kristie Kam

unfulfilled dreams  

DACA young professionals await the fate of their long-term investment and success in America.

Here are their stories. 

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Gabriel Sanchez was determined to go to medical school after he finished his bachelor degree at St Gregory’s University in Oklahoma. Helping people has always been his biggest passion. But after spending a summer teaching in the South Bronx prior to graduation, Sanchez found out another way in helping people, and it is by becoming a teacher.

“I fell in love with how much of a difference I can make in kids’ lives,” says Sanchez.

Through Breakthrough New York, a non-profit organization that helps students of color and those from low-income families break the cycle of poverty, he taught physics to low-income students. “This experience made me realized that introducing students to education will eventually lead to a whole host of inventions and occupations by which those students can make the world a better place to live.”

Sanchez is one of the 40,000 young professionals under DACA, or the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, in the United States. He enrolled in the program in 2013, a year after former President Barack Obama created the program to protect undocumented youths from deportation and offer them an opportunity to work in the States. It was in effect until last September when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced President Donald Trump’s decision to rescind the program.  

Since then, no new DACA applications have been accepted. President Trump gave the Congress a six-month deadline to come up with a legislative deal. However, none of the bipartisan proposals were passed by the Senate before the deadline.  

With recent court rulings that ruled against Trump’s decision to end the program, DACA recipients could renew their two-year terms again. But that did not ease the fear of the country’s Dreamers, especially for the small percentage of the DACA population who are working in professional fields. Congress’s lack of action to come up with a legislative deal can potentially shatter Sanchez’s dream to stay in the country and continue teaching.

There are 689,900 DACA recipients in the U.S. as of September 4, 2017, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Another study conducted by Migration Policy Institute, a research institute based in Washington reveals that fifty-five percent of the DACA population is employed in 15 different occupation groups. However, only two percent is employed as teachers and less than 1 percent works in business, computer and mathematics occupations. 

“We see people who become teachers or attorneys, they are high achievers. They often struggle against great odds in order to obtain the education they needed,” said Patrick Young, a Long Island immigration attorney and co-founder of the Immigration Law Clinic at Hofstra University. Young, who represented over 300 undocumented youths before immigration courts and the Department of Homeland Security, says these young adults have to face the uncertainty of DACA.

"Because of the court orders, they have been able to renew their permits since January, so as of now they are not losing DACA. But at some point, the Supreme Court may rule against them." 

As a result, these professionals can also potentially lose their professional licenses. They will have to seek alternate paths, such as in fields that do not align with their skills.  

Sanchez aspires to be a better educator for all of his students no matter what backgrounds they come from. This summer he will teach in New York as a member of the DACAmented Teacher program at Teach for America, a non-profit organization that recruits and places recent graduates in teaching posts in 52 low-income communities.

 Sanchez (middle) is teaching 10th graders biology in a high school in rural Oklahoma. (Photo Courtesy: Gabriel Sanchez)

Sanchez (middle) is teaching 10th graders biology in a high school in rural Oklahoma. (Photo Courtesy: Gabriel Sanchez)

His DACA permit expires in August 2019. Despite not knowing if he will be able to continue teaching then, he is still determined to stay and fight for his dream.

I will never give up and I know that no matter where you come from, what your socioeconomic status is, I think that everyone in this world deserves an opportunity
— Gabriel Sanchez

Teachers and other professionals are a minority among DACA recipients because undocumented immigrants generally have limited access to college, says Ariel G. Ruiz Soto, an associate policy analyst at Migration Policy Institute.

Though DACA allows undocumented youths to enroll in colleges without the fear of deportation, few can afford four-year college tuition. 

According to the Migration Policy Institute, only 4 percent of the DACA population age 15-32 have bachelor degrees, compared to 33.4 percent of Americans in a study released by U.S. Census Bureau. 

“While DACA provides access to education, it is still not the solution to increase immigrants’ access to higher skilled jobs,” says Soto. He explains the problem is that these recipients are still not finishing college education the same way as the others due to financial difficulties.

Sanchez had his struggles to finance his tuition. “When I was a senior in high school in Oklahoma, I actually got rejected by all my local scholarships in my hometown even though I was one of the top 2 percent of the class.” But in the end, he was able to receive an $18,000 scholarship from St. Gregory’s University. That enabled him to attend and pay only half of the tuition.

Felipe Salazar was not as lucky. Salazar arrived in Miami with his family from Colombia when he was 10. He enrolled in the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia as a computer engineering major where he needed to pay around $16,000 a year.

Salazar's family carried the financial burden to pay for his full tuition. To help, Salazar decided to take a lot of college courses in high school and was able to transfer 66 credits, allowing him to graduate in two years.

Salazar, now 28 and living in San Francisco, is a software engineer at Google. He described the opportunity to work for one of the tech giants in Silicon Valley was definitely worthwhile. “Here in California, everyone is more friendly towards immigrants,” he said.

Through FWD.us, a non-profit organization founded by the leaders in the tech community that brings immigrants and organizers together to advocate for political change, Salazar participated in an immigrant youth-led hackathon where he spent over 30 hours to develop tools and applications that aim to educate immigrants or DACA recipients who are affected by the U.S. immigration system.

I started attending some events and got to know a few of the people working in the field. Ever since then, they have connected me with people who want to find out more about stories about DACA recipients.
— Felipe Salazar

Soto points out that the most immediate impact of DACA being rescinded will be losing professional occupations. "For some of them and if they would like to, they can work in other countries. It might be unlikely but it is possible." 

For these American residents, though, migrating back home or leaving the U.S. was never an option. Salazar does not see himself going back to Colombia even if he is to be deported. “Colombia is not a technologically advanced country. After doing what I have been doing here, I would like to continue in this safe environment. I don’t think you can find it anywhere in Colombia.”

Thomas Kim, 26, is an incoming associate at Davis Wright Tremaine, a national law firm with over 500 attorneys. Kim sees America as “a land of opportunities.” Like Salazar, the thought of moving back to his home country to start over never crosses his mind.

“I will be the first DACA recipient who became an attorney in the state of Oregon, so I am very thankful to pave the way and be a success story for other immigrants or people like me. I would like to inspire everyone,” says Kim.

Kim and his parents immigrated from South Korea to the U.S. legally and settled in Oregon when he was 13. However, his immigration attorney failed to file his family's immigration paperwork and ran away with their money. 

And he became undocumented. He did not want to go back to South Korea. Instead, this experience actually motivated him to become an immigration lawyer to help and defend these low-income families. 

It is seemingly difficult but it doesn’t require rocket science to help these people. They just want a good person with a good heart. That’s all it takes to help these people.
— Thomas Kim

Sanchez, Salazar and Kim were among the 4 percent of the DACA population who successfully completed their undergraduate education. For now, they are still able to work at their jobs with professional licenses under DACA.

The number of DACA recipients in different states

Click on each dot to find out the DACA population for each state. According to Migration Policy Institute, the total number of DACA participants in the program is nearly 689,800 as of September 4, 2017.

 Purple: less than 4,500; Blue: between 4,500 to 10,000; Green: between 10,000 to 55,000; Yellow: over 55,000 but less than 197,900.

According to a 2017 National DACA Study conducted by Tom K. Wong, an assistant professor at the University of California San Diego, 68.5 percent said they received a better paying job because of DACA. It increased from 62.5 percent compared to the same study conducted in 2016.

“I think most importantly, if it weren’t for DACA, I wouldn’t have been able to work in professional jobs,” says Raymond Partolan, an immigration paralegal in Atlanta, Georgia.

His parents were able to come to the U.S. from the Philippines with H1B visas as high-skilled workers. Without them, he would not be able to achieve the American dream. Partolan says that he is capable of making more money than both of his parents and support them.

But without a permanent solution to DACA, the path to pursue a professional career for those who are still in college is unclear.

DACA students like Esau Cruz-Gutierrez, despite having an opportunity to receive education through DACA, are not sure about the likelihood of getting employed under temporary legal status.

“My biggest worry is being a DACA recipient would affect my application. They do not even care to look at resume, or what I have done to prove myself worthy,” says Gutierrez.

With the help of DACA, he completed his bachelor degree at Stony Brook University as a biochemistry major. Just last December, he finished his master degree and starting dental school in August.

His experience shadowing an orthodontist made him realize that dentistry is the career path he wants to pursue. One day, he hopes to open his own clinic.

No matter what education the administration wants to take, they can never take it away from me. If I get my dental degree, that degree will matter anywhere in the world.
— Esau Cruz-Gutierrez