These days, it’s easy to be skeptical of the American Dream. Even before the pandemic, which sent our nation’s unemployment rate soaring above 10 percent, we faced growing income inequality, stunted economic mobility, and deeply embedded structural racism. And yet my life is proof that the American Dream is achievable — if we have leaders who are willing to support it.
I came to this country in 1982 as a Guatemalan teenager. I had nothing, not even the legal right to be here. But before you pass judgment, consider where I am today: I run my own home health care agency that allows seniors with health needs to live with dignity in their own homes in Victorville. My children are pursuing their dreams: one is halfway through residency as a doctor and the other is finishing his MBA in home health administration. I’m active at church and, especially during difficult moments like these, make a point of lending a hand wherever I can. My American-born neighbors are no different. Their lives are also defined by hard work, family and faith.
But what none of us have right now is a leader who understands that inclusivity creates opportunity. Over 30 years ago, one such leader recognized this, and the result changed my life.
In 1986 when Ronald Reagan signed the Immigration Control and Reform Act (IRCA), it gave 3 million people a pathway to citizenship. Many people called this Reagan’s “amnesty” program. And the results were clear. Men who gained legal status would have been earning between 14 and 24 percent higher wages if they’d been “legal” for all of their working lives in the United States, according to the American Immigration Council. The educational attainment and home ownership of IRCA beneficiaries also increased substantially, while their rates of poverty plunged.
Legal status is crucial, because it is humane and provides security, but it also empowers recipients to significantly improve their earnings. And that creates more tax revenue, more consumer buying power and more jobs for everyone. As we face a daunting economic recovery, isn’t that something we want?
After the 2008 recession, immigrants were twice as likely as native-born Americans to start businesses, according to New American Economy. Today, more than 3 million immigrant entrepreneurs live in the United States. They employ about 8 million people and generate $1.3 trillion in sales, according to NAE. Immigrant workers are crucial , because even with high unemployment, many industries still lack an adequate labor force. Healthcare is one of them. My company, Gracelight Home Healthcare, provides nursing care, physical, speech and occupational therapists and home health aides to support patients in their own homes.
Myself and family notwithstanding, immigrants are our backbone; as of 2018, nearly 40 percent of all home health aides in the U.S. were foreign-born. Of these 7 percent are undocumented. And yet, there simply aren’t enough of us to meet the need; by 2030, 1 in 5 Americans is projected to be 65 years old and over. Now consider that home health aides are typically working-age women without bachelor’s degrees. a population that is slowly shrinking among U.S.-born workers.
There will always be the need for these kinds of jobs, because there will always be women like me who are willing to start from the bottom and work their way up while gaining skills along the way. A few years ago, when I was in my late 40s, I joined a women’s group at church. As usual they didn’t question who I was or where I’d come from. They saw me as a woman of faith, just like them. One of the women there helped me get a job assisting the elderly, which lead to a position with a home healthcare agency. Eventually, that inspired me to start my own business.
It didn’t come together overnight. I was literally told that I was never going to make it because of my English or because I wasn’t an RN. My sons taught me to use a computer and the internet. I had to spend all my savings and take out a second mortgage to obtain a business license and Medicare certification in California. Today, my company has 54 employees and a client base of over 320. My husband was able to retire from construction to join me at our agency, and my youngest is learning the business to run day-to-day operations.
As a result of this success we’re able to help others in our community in ways that my teenage self never would have imagined. We can provide care to those who are under- or uninsured even when they can’t afford our help with grocery shopping for high-risk clients, and are active at our local Mormon church. Inclusivity strengthens communities. It inspires generosity. And it makes every person feel that he or she matters.
Inclusivity must be on the ballot this fall. Bold leaders like Reagan took decisive steps that helped millions — both undocumented immigrants and the American communities that benefited from their prosperity. My family is one of many examples. We represent what inclusivity can accomplish and why it’s so crucial. At a moment when sickness and natural disaster have sent us reeling, we must open our arms: in big ways, through policy, and in small ways, with each other. There’s only one way we’re going to pull through this, and that’s together.