Op-Ed | New York leaders can and must do more to support immigrants

Activists and DACA recipients march up Broadway during the start of their ‘Walk to Stay Home,’ a five-day 250-mile walk from New York to Washington D.C., to demand that Congress pass a Clean Dream Act, in Manhattan, New York
FILE PHOTO: Activists and DACA recipients march up Broadway during the start of their ‘Walk to Stay Home,’ a five-day 250-mile walk from New York to Washington D.C., to demand that Congress pass a Clean Dream Act, in Manhattan, New York, U.S., February 15, 2018. (REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

My parents and I came to the U.S. from Ecuador when I was just two years old with the dream of giving me a better future, and I’m proud of the sacrifices we’ve made and the challenges we have overcome to be here. 

In 2011, my father faced deportation but won his case, earned permanent residence status, and is now a small business owner. Meanwhile, I won a full scholarship to attend CUNY Hunter and fulfilled my dream of becoming a doctor. 

I am a Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient. The program and my status as a Dreamer allow me to temporarily live, study, and work in the U.S., including now as a physician in the NYU Langone Health Pediatric residency program. I am active in my community and use my bilingual skills to help fellow immigrants understand legal issues. As a pediatrician, I hope to use my experiences to advocate for social determinants of health and solutions to health disparities that disproportionately affect Latino immigrant families.

There are still, however, many hurdles to overcome in order to achieve my doctoral goals. DACA is temporary – I have to renew my status every two years – and it has yet to be codified into law by Congress. While it has allowed me to access in-state tuition throughout my higher education journey and obtain professional licensing to practice my passion, I could lose my ability to practice should the program be rescinded. Thankfully, our state and federal legislators can help. 

A bill under consideration in the State Assembly known as the Empire State Licensing Act could help place more immigrant workers like me in jobs for which they have both the skills and passion by allowing them to obtain professional licensing. Not only could this address the current labor shortage today, but it could build a more resilient workforce for future challenges and uncertainties ahead. It would also give certainty to immigrants so we can work towards our dream jobs and contribute even more to the state we love and call home.

I am proud to be one of 100,000 young immigrants in New York who came to the U.S. at a young age – otherwise known as Dreamers – and one of 330,000 undocumented New Yorkers working in essential industries, including 9,200 DACA recipients. However, our nation’s immigration system is lagging behind and fails to recognize the value that immigrants hold in today’s world. Today, one in four New York immigrants are in the workforce and contribute billions annually in taxes while revitalizing communities with social, cultural and economic diversity and innovation.

It is my hope that state leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, as well as Governor Kathy Hochul, realize the critical contributions immigrants are making every day in New York and pass legislation – such as the Empire State Licensing Act – to support and encourage immigration as a workforce booster, economic multiplier, and innovation game-changer.

But ultimately, immigration policy is made at the federal level. U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and other members of the New York  Congressional delegation must work to pass immigration relief as part of the budget reconciliation process or other legislation, such as the Dream Act that could once and for all provide certainty for Dreamers. 

Should temporary status programs such as the DACA program ever be terminated, New York could lose $2.6 billion in annual GDP and a significant population of immigrants at a time when the state is struggling to retain immigrants which is hindering economic growth and workforce development.

From my perspective as a DACA recipient, a physician, and an advocate, New York and the nation could do far more to establish pro-immigration, pro-growth policies. It’s not only the moral thing to do but it is needed to build a stronger tomorrow.

Jessica Astudillo, MD is a DACA recipient and physician at NYU Langone Health Pediatric residency program. Jessica’s views are her own and reflect the institution.