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Activists attend a march for immigrant rights in Los Angeles. (Flickr Photo / Molly Adams)

Remitly marketing manager Lazaro Carrion became a U.S. citizen last year. It took 20 years and two emigrations to achieve that status, in part because the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program didn’t exist when he graduated from college.

Carrion traveled with family from Mexico to Washington’s Yakima Valley when he was 7 years old without legal documentation. The significance of that didn’t set in until high school, when he started looking into financial aid for college. Carrion didn’t qualify for many of the public grants but was able to attend Whitman College on private scholarships. Then, he graduated.

“I realized I didn’t have opportunities to work legally in this country, so I left,” Carrion told GeekWire at a Seattle event hosted by Remitly, a company that enables international money transfers, as part of a broader effort to pressure Congress to act on DACA.

Carrion moved back to Mexico in 2008. It was four years before the Obama administration created DACA, allowing some 800,000 undocumented immigrants (a.k.a. Dreamers) who arrived in the U.S. as children to remain in the country and work without fear of deportation. Carrion returned to the U.S. in 2012 and obtained legal residency through marriage.

“It was a 20-year process, essentially, from the moment I first entered the country to the moment I had the legal right to vote, which I celebrate every day,” he said.

Today, Carrion is part of the immigrant tech workforce, and his story makes it easy to see why immigration reform — from DACA, to startup visas, to the H1-B program — has become a flagship issue for the industry. Businesses founded by immigrants and their children comprise 43 percent of the Fortune 500; the tech industry relies on skilled foreign workers to address its talent shortage; and companies like Microsoft feel compelled to stand behind their immigrant employees, especially Dreamers.

Lazaro Carrion immigrated from Mexico as a child and just received citizenship last year. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Immigrant advocacy is particularly essential to Remitly’s DNA; the company’s business is all about making it cheaper and easier for people living and working in affluent countries to send money back home. Because of that mission, many immigrants, like Carrion, are drawn to the startup.

The fact that Carrion left the U.S. after earning his degree is exactly why Washington Technology Industry Association CEO Michael Schutzler thinks immigration reform is so imperative.

“We’re bringing people from all over the world into our universities, they’re paying tuition, they’re getting educated, and then we deport them,” Schutzler said during a panel discussion at Remitly’s Seattle headquarters Wednesday. “It’s like, shooting yourself in the foot is tragic. Shooting yourself in the head is catastrophic. But we continue to have a gun pointed at our own head as a country.”

Schutzler was joined by OneAmerica Executive Director Rich Stolz and Remitly CFO Krish Srinivasan on the panel. Remitly co-hosted the event with New American Economy (NAE), a group created by several mayors of big cities and leaders of top companies to push policymakers toward comprehensive immigration reform.

Remitly CFO Krish Srinivasan, WTIA CEO Michael Schutzler, and OneAmerica Director Rich Stolz speak at an immigrant advoacy event in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

Today, NAE is hosting events, like the one at Remitly, in each of the 50 states to promote immigration reform and pressure Congress to act on DACA by the end of the year. To underscore the events taking place nationwide, NAE released a series of reports on the impact of immigrants across the nation. In Washington state, immigrants comprise 14 percent of the population with spending power of $27.5 billion. Washington state has 28,054 residents who are eligible for the DACA program. They could pay $93 million in state and local taxes, according to NAE’s analysis.

Three months ago, President Donald Trump announced he would not renew DACA, leaving the fate of the immigrants protected by the program up in the air. Trump gave Congress a six-month window to come up with a legislative fix before DACA protections expire. That deadline is in March, though immigration advocates say a solution is needed by the end of the year because it will take several months to implement the new program. The onus is on Congress because Obama created DACA as an executive order when his immigration reform bill stalled. Many Republicans say they oppose DACA because the executive branch isn’t authorized to make changes to immigration policy.

Paúl Quinonez is one of the Dreamers watching Congress with bated breath. Like Carrion, he arrived in this country as a 7-year-old and grew up in Eastern Washington. He was a top student and wanted to go to college but didn’t know if it would be worth the investment.

“What was the point of going to college if we were going to invest all this money in my education and once I graduated, I wasn’t going to be able to legally work in the country? I wasn’t going to be able to put my degree to good use,” he said. Then, during Quinonez’s senior year of college, DACA was announced.

Paúl Quinonez is a Dreamer and advocate for immigration reform in Washington state. (GeekWire Photo / Monica Nickelsburg)

“My parents and I talked about it for months, if we should take the risk of applying or not,” Quinonez said.

In the end, he decided to apply for DACA. The security it provided allowed him to study economics and political science at Gonzaga University, where he also began volunteering for an immigrant advocacy group, the Washington Dream Coalition. After graduating, he took a job with the Washington state Legislature. The career Quinonez has started to build is now in jeopardy because his DACA status expires in 2019.

“If Congress doesn’t act in time, my employer would be forced to fire me because they couldn’t continue to legally employ me and I would lose all of those things,” he said.

Today in the other Washington, thousands of immigrants and activists attended a rally to pressure Congress to act on DACA before time runs out. Democrats are using their leverage in budget negotiations to push for protections for DACA recipients. That and other issues could lead to a partial government shutdown if lawmakers can’t reach an agreement.

“Obviously, while we don’t want a government shutdown, the Republicans are the ones that control every branch of government so if a shutdown does happen, it’s going to be on them,” Quinonez said. “It’s going to be on their unwillingness to negotiate and pass something that the majority of American people need and support.”

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