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Dreamers rallied at then-Representative Mike Coffman's office in 2017.
Dreamers rallied at then-Representative Mike Coffman's office in 2017.

Op-Ed: Congress Needs to Give Dreamers a Permanent Home

In my former job as a congressman representing Colorado’s 6th district, I had the honor of interviewing some of our state’s top high school candidates for admission to the U.S. Air Force, Army and Naval academies.

I’ll never forget one young Latina woman who was especially impressive and wanted to go to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. In addition to having a burning desire to change the world, she seemed like a genuinely nice person.

But she was undocumented. It didn’t matter that she came here from Mexico when she was a year old and spent twelve years in the American school system. It didn't matter that she was at the top of her class and had an impressive list of school and community activities.She was ineligible to attend a military academy and serve her country.

This exemplary woman is one of more than 26,000 Dreamers in Colorado who came to the United States when they were children, and have been living in an exasperating no-man’s land ever since President Donald Trump announced more than two years ago that he was dismantling the program Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, known as DACA, that gave them temporary legal status. Without it, they could be eligible for deportation.

Yet this week, I’m encouraged that the U.S. Supreme Court did the right thing by upholding DACA and protecting the rights of 1.2 million DACA-eligible undocumented immigrants to live without fear and support their families and communities.

I’m also aware this reprieve could be temporary. The momentousness of this decision underscores the need for Congress to finally step up and pass legislation to give them a permanent home and pathway to citizenship. Not only would such a move be good for Colorado, it would send a message that our country believes in fairness. These young adults didn’t make the decision to come to the United States illegally when they were children, and they shouldn’t have to continue to suffer decades later.

During my time in Congress, I learned that many of my colleagues, including Republicans like me, felt the same way I did: Dreamers are valued contributors to society. Nationally, 93 percent of Dreamers were employed in 2017. That same year, they paid $4 billion in local, state and federal taxes. They fill critical shortages in health care, education, software engineering and accounting. Across the nation, 62,600 Dreamers are on the front lines taking care of patients during the COVID-19 pandemic; there are more than 11,000 registered and vocational nurses, more than 9,300 medical assistants and more than 5,800 nursing assistants, according to research and advocacy organization New American Economy.

As the mayor of Aurora, Colorado’s most diverse city, I often hear how immigration impacts residents’ lives. With our large Mexican, Salvadoran, Ethiopian and Korean immigrant presence, it’s not uncommon to meet families of mixed status: You have two siblings, just a year or two apart in age, but only one is an American citizen. These kids should be growing up the same, but the Dreamer will have a different identity and life — all because of an immigration technicality. Many live with chronic anxiety, compounded by the fact that they don’t qualify for financial aid in Colorado to pursue a college education.

Dreamers need the same opportunities as their brothers and sisters and peers to reach their potential. And Colorado needs their talents and passion. Considering that Dreamers start businesses at higher rates than native-born Americans, we can’t afford to lose them, especially during times of economic uncertainty. They could be the next wave of our state’s entrepreneurs and create much-needed jobs.

We shouldn’t put Dreamers at the mercy of the courts. Congress needs to do its job and pass legislation that allows Dreamers to put down roots where they belong, become residents and have the chance to become American citizens. They deserve nothing less.

Mike Coffman is the mayor of Aurora and a former U.S. Representative from Colorado’s 6th district.

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