Following a raucous town hall meeting in Denair on April 17, Congressman Jeff Denham met a much more subdued crowd Wednesday morning, April 19 as he, state Assemblyman Heath Flora and county Supervisor Kristin Olsen highlighted the need for commonsense immigration reform at a roundtable discussion, addressing the critical role that immigrants play in small business, agriculture and other industries here in the Central Valley.
At the panel hosted by immigration reform group FWD.us and the Central Valley Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the three politicians were also joined by Congregations Building Community Executive Director Homero Mejia and Alexis Angulo, Senior Class President at Gustine High School and DACA recipient.
Angulo is a recipient of former President Barack Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) 2012 immigration policy, which allows some undocumented immigrants, known as "dreamers," who were brought to the United States as children to receive deferred action from deportation and eligibility for work permits.
Angulo currently boasts a 4.2 GPA, which has earned him a full-ride scholarship to Dartmouth University where he hopes to study electrical engineering before eventually working for NASA.
"Your story is absolutely incredible," Flora told Angulo. "I'm proud that you're on this panel because you have lived this and you are the expert in this because this is your life."
Dreamers like Angulo have lived in fear of deportation since President Donald Trump took office. He has promised to crack down on illegal immigration and deport those who skirted immigration law. Although Trump has promised to protect dreamers, the recent deportation of a dreamer in Southern California has sparked concern among those protected by DACA. Maria Harrington, a teacher in the audience at the panel, expressed the fear that not only her immigrant students feel under the new administration, but the uncertainty she feels as well.
"I feel that my voice needs to be heard," she said, standing from her chair after both Denham and Olsen stated the climate surrounding immigration and deportations has not changed from the Obama era. "I have a lot of students that are flat-out afraid...It already happened that a DACA student got deported and you're saying don't be scared? Even me, as a teacher...I'm shaking in my boots."
There are around 11,000 DACA-eligible individuals in Stanislaus and Merced counties, and nearly 800,000 dreamers are currently protected nationwide under DACA. Removing them from the workforce would cost the United States $433.4 billion in GDP loss over a decade.
During the panel, Denham highlighted the need to pass bipartisan legislation, rather than an executive order like DACA, which can be eliminated by a new president, in order to protect dreamers from deportation. Comprehensive immigration reform has not emerged from Congress in over 30 years, he said.
"Congress must lead in fixing our broken immigration system, with an important part of the plan being a path to legal status for Dreamers who were brought here as children," said Denham. "These hardworking young people are already part of our communities, and they deserve a fair and thoughtful solution that will bring certainty to their lives."
One such way Denham is trying to help, he explained, is through his ENLIST Act, which promises legal permanent residence to Dreamers who serve in the military, as well as through co-sponsoring the BRIDGE Act and helping to design the RAC Act - both of which aim to provide protection for Dreamers.
"(The ENLIST Act) doesn't solve all of our problems, but it is one small piece of the overall immigration reform that not only needs to get resolved but allows us to start the conversation," said Denham. "If you can agree that Dreamers should be able to serve in the military, that allows you to start the conversation with, ‘Okay, well what else?'"
Dreamers that obey the law and continue to be contributing members of society should be granted legal status through immigration reform, said Flora.
"The immigrants, the folks that come here to better their lives - we want them here. We need them to understand we want them here," said Flora. "We want them to stay here, we want them to be successful as Americans and it is our job to make sure we set up a system that works for everyone."
Real reform happens during discussions like Wednesday's, said Flora, not in Sacramento or Washington, D.C., but in the communities where those who are affected can make their voices heard.
Olsen underscored the positive impact that immigrants have on the local economy. Immigrant residents in the Modesto area are 20 percent more likely to be entrepreneurs than native-born residents, and in 2014 paid more than $296 million in state and local taxes.
"Our economic success in the Valley is very closely connected to having an immigration system that works," said Olsen. "There have been numerous studies done showing that if immigration was cut off, how our agriculture communities in particular would survive and it's not a pretty picture."