I was 6 years old when my parents brought me to Portland from El Salvador. Gang violence and government corruption were rampant, and America offered safety. Soon I was your typical American kid. I learned English, played soccer, served as vice president of my freshman class and graduated with honors. In El Salvador, even walking to school would have put me in danger.

A demonstrator takes part in a November 2019 rally outside the Supreme Court in support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Ninety-five percent of Dreamers are employed, and nearly half are essential workers. Al Drago/Bloomberg

I didn’t know I was undocumented until my freshman year of high school. Once my mom secured temporary legal status for me through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, she revealed the truth. At first, I kept the revelation to myself, worried my teachers and classmates would see me differently. Later, when the Trump administration tried to end DACA, I kept the secret out of fear: Would I be deported? It wasn’t until 2014, when I met City Councilor Pious Ali, that I felt I’d found someone I could trust.

Pious came to my school with King Fellows, a leadership organization for youth of color. We bonded over our love of fashion and soccer. He became my mentor, but I didn’t tell him I was a Dreamer until my senior year, when I learned I was ineligible for college scholarships or financial aid. I worried he’d judge me; instead, he said, “You may not have been born here, but you belong here and deserve the same opportunities as your peers.” With his support, and the generosity of a local family who covered my tuition at Endicott College, I became the first person in my family to attend college.

Pious isn’t a Dreamer, but he understands the challenges we face. In his native Ghana, he’d been a photographer; in America, agencies wouldn’t recognize his African training. He spent two years working in a Portland restaurant. Like me, he sometimes questioned whether he really belonged. Also like me, he fell in love with Maine. He volunteered with the youth leadership program Seeds of Peace, then co-founded King Fellows to help underrepresented kids in Portland succeed. In 2013, he became the first African-born Muslim elected to public office in our state. He’s now an at-large city councilor and assists families at Portland Empowered. He’s the ultimate role model.

With Pious’ support and my own perseverance, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and became an educational technician at Lincoln Middle School, helping students who remind me of my journey. Eventually, I hope to start a social media marketing firm and continue having a positive impact by amplifying underrepresented voices.

But there’s a difference between Pious and me: He’s a citizen. He naturalized in 2008, gaining security I can only dream of. He will never be threatened with deportation. His ability to advance his career and raise a family will never depend on the whims of the president. As a Dreamer, I can rely on nothing. As long as Congress fails to give us a pathway to citizenship, I will be looking over my shoulder.

That’s not fair for Dreamers. It’s also a drawback for the country. Nearly half of Dreamers are essential workers, including 62,000 in health care, according to New American Economy. Over 46,000 are entrepreneurs. Ninety-five percent are employed, filling positions across the economy losing workers as baby boomers retire. That’s especially important in Maine, one of the country’s oldest populations. Nationally, DACA-eligible households earn $26.4 billion in annual income, $6.2 billion of which funds programs like Medicare that seniors rely on.

These contributions are impressive, but Dreamers could do even more for our communities. I can’t risk starting a business or buying a home when the next president could try to deport me like Donald Trump did. That’s a personal loss for me, and an economic loss for Maine. Instead, we could be moving forward together. I’m grateful to Pious, who gave me the courage to come out of the shadows and pursue my dreams. Now I need Congress to help me realize them.


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