Today I am 25 years old. Today I am co-owner of a small business that develops tailor-made laboratory kits for high school and college science students. Today I am looking to hire employees and grow my company.
In less than two years, it’s possible everything I’m working for will be gone because I could be living in Venezuela, a country I left when I was 9 years old and is now foreign to me. My future is uncertain because I am a Dreamer, and although the U.S. House of Representatives voted to create a path to citizenship for people like me, without action by the U.S Supreme Court, Congress and President Donald Trump, I could eventually be forced to leave the United States.
President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy made my entrepreneurial dream possible. I attended high school as an undocumented immigrant in Burlington County, N.J., and planned to return to Venezuela after graduation in 2012 because of my status. Only three days before I was scheduled to leave the United States, however, my life changed forever: I became one of the first Dreamers, meaning I would be able to stay in one of the few places where I get to decide who or what I want to be.
DACA was the key I needed to open doors that had once been firmly shut. Thanks to DACA, I was allowed to apply for college, obtain a driver’s license and get a nonprofit job to help pay for my education. I eventually received an associates degree in business and engineering from a local community college, and I’m now working toward a business degree at Rutgers University.
Although I am grateful for DACA, it’s important to acknowledge the program isn’t a free ride. Since DACA was new during my first year of college, I paid tuition out of pocket at the out-of-state rate, even though I had lived in New Jersey for 10 years at that point. And until I got my driver’s license, I had to schedule my classes around the public bus schedule — easier said than done.
DACA also didn’t make it easier for Dreamers to start and own a business. I was not permitted to sign the documents necessary to register my business, so my co-owner had to take care of all the paperwork. While my business’ bylaws do recognize my status as a co-owner, for tax purposes I am listed as a 1099 employee as if I were an independent contractor. Without out my co-owner, who is a U.S. citizen, it would have been nearly impossible for me to pursue business ownership.
Despite these challenges, I would not be a business owner without DACA and I would not have this sort of opportunity anywhere else. Many other DACA recipients feel the same way: We work hard and we aren’t asking for much more than a path to citizenship so we can have the chance to show what we’re capable of achieving.
Immigration reform is not, however, just about Dreamers like me. Immigrants are twice as likely to start a business as the average person. In fact, a report from the New American Economy Research Fund found immigrants owned nearly three million American businesses in 2014, employed almost six million people and produced more than $65 billion worth of income.
Ineffective immigration laws also hurt existing small businesses. Entrepreneurs increasingly say they are struggling to find qualified workers and need a larger applicant pool to meet their workforce needs. Scientific opinion polling conducted on behalf of Small Business Majority found small businesses overwhelmingly believe comprehensive immigration reform is good for America and good for business because it establishes a qualified, trained and stable workforce.
The United States is not just a nation of immigrants, but an economy of immigrants. Without Dreamers and others we would lose jobs and income, which is why I hope Congress will take legislative action to create a clear and fair path to citizenship for immigrants like me. This can include background checks, application fees and filing tax returns — all of which are already required of Dreamers.
Today, I am a small business owner living my dream in America. When my DACA status expires in 2021, where will I be? Only the Supreme Court, lawmakers or lawyers can answer that question.
Daniela Velez is co-owner of Innovated Lab Designs, Inc., in Beverly, N.J. She is also part of Small Business Majority’s network of 58,000 small business owners.
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