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'Deported at any time': How Dreamers thrive despite uncertainty

While many high school seniors have one priority over the next few months — getting into college (and figuring out how to pay for it), thousands of undocumented immigrants wonder if they will even be able to remain in the U.S.

After the Senate failed to advance any immigration proposals, the March 5 expiration date for DACA is fast approaching. DACA protects an estimated 700,000 undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children from deportation and grants them work permits. And despite the uncertainty and political gridlock, young adults can still pursue their dreams in America.

“All of us — with or without DACA — and our family members can get deported at any time. My parents and I have thought about what we’d do if we are forced to leave, like consolidating bank accounts and starting a business in our home country,” said liana Perez, a DACA recipient and the head of Immigrants Rising, a new initiative that helps undocumented youth pursue entrepreneurship. The program is part of Educators for Fair Consideration (E4FC), an organization that empowers young undocumented immigrants to achieve their educational and career goals.

“The fear of deportation will always be there, and that’s a risk that anybody who chooses to immigrate to a new country has to live with. We have to be prepared for the worst case scenario,” said Perez, whose work certification expires in January 2019.

‘It’s all uncertainty’

And while it’s not only wise but necessary to come up with contingency plans, it shouldn’t be debilitating to the point that you give up on a future.

Judy Lorimer, director of Goddard Riverside Options Center, which helps low-income and first-generation New Yorkers get into, pay for and graduate from college, estimates that 8%-10% of its 500 students are Dreamers who are feeling more fearful than ever.

“Since Trump got elected, it’s all uncertainty. So many students have invested in their education and have no idea if they’ll be able to use their degrees,” said Lorimer.

Karin Elliott, executive director of National Partnership for Educational Access, a membership group that helps underserved students enroll in and graduate from college, echoed Lorimer’s concerns.

“Undocumented young people come for counseling. Many believe that education is important regardless, but the huge question is about what they would do afterward. I’m hearing anger and fear. Students are having internal debates — it’s important, but where will it get me? There are actually a number of students who didn’t know they were undocumented until they started applying for college,” she said.

Pursuing college and beyond

Since 2001, 17 states have implemented policies to help qualified students pay for higher education. California’s DREAM Act allows Dreamers to apply for financial aid packages. Additionally, the state’s Assembly Bill 540 offers non-resident students the lower in-state tuition. But, because of the unpredictable environment, applications for aid through the DREAM Act are down substantially.

Perez said she’s emphasizing the importance of being independent, so individuals can find a way to support themselves, without work certification through DACA. Perez, an undocumented immigrant born in Hidalgo, Mexico, moved to California with her parents and younger brother when she was 8 years old. After graduating from college in 2009 (pre-DACA), she wondered how she could earn a living without work authorization.

She found two alternatives. All immigrants regardless of legal status are able to earn a living as independent contractors, or build a business using an individual taxpayer identification number (ITIN) or Social Security number.

Building a network

As with any business, networking is the most crucial way for individuals to raise capital and find an audience. Perez is organizing events like The Festival of UnDocuInnovation, where immigrant entrepreneurs from across the country gather to share their struggles and successes.

Through business development workshops, Perez is giving undocumented immigrants the opportunity to pitch their for-profit and nonprofit ideas to investors and philanthropists. Perez has witnessed individuals starting businesses across a wide spectrum of industries, ranging from social media and marketing to food and high-tech.

E4FC, hoping to coalesce the community through direct support, created FUSE, a $50,000 fund that provides grants to five undocumented entrepreneurs working to create positive social change.

Perez herself is a huge proponent of higher education (in addition to her bachelor’s degree, she’s received a master’s in economics and is currently completing her Ph.D. in education policy from Claremont Graduate University), but she said it’s not the only answer.

“We’ve found a way to live and survive in this country, otherwise we wouldn’t be here. We can get deported at any time. We have to live with that fact, and create our own opportunity because it doesn’t exist,” said Perez. “It’s always been my dream to build a business and I’ll be doing that no matter what.”

Melody Hahm is a senior writer at Yahoo Finance, covering entrepreneurship, technology and real estate. Follow her on Twitter @melodyhahm.

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