Emergency Fund keeps dreams in focus
About $150,000 has been disbursed to Dreamers who are concentrating on work and school while facing an uncertain future.
When Alejandra Webster completed her Nursing degree at Metropolitan State University of Denver in December 2020, her skills were in high demand. Covid-19 would claim nearly 100,000 American lives in January 2021, still the deadliest month of the pandemic in the U.S.
However, she couldn’t work as a nurse upon graduation because Colorado prohibited undocumented immigrants from obtaining professional licenses until June 2021, when Gov. Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 21-077, removing lawful presence as a condition for professional licensure. Webster is bilingual, served as the president of MSU Denver’s Student Nurses Association, graduated with a high GPA in a field with a national workforce shortage and was still on the outside looking in — a familiar refrain for Dreamers who were brought to the U.S. as children.
Webster, 29, has lived in Colorado since she was 6 months old. As a recipient of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, she has work authorization and deportation protection, but those could be taken away for her and some 600,000 other DACA recipients by a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals decision any day now.
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While she and other Dreamers await that news, they’re focused on their jobs or their studies, and MSU Denver is working to support students with the Dreamer Emergency Fund, established in 2020 to provide financial assistance for medical emergencies, dependent care, DACA renewal fees and more. To date, the University has helped more than 150 Dreamer students with an average of around $1,000 distributed to each.
As a student, Webster was helping to support her parents financially, but immigrants without a Social Security number were excluded from the federal stimulus checks that helped many Americans get by during the first year of the pandemic. The Dreamer Emergency Fund helped her make ends meet while she worked as a peer mentor in Immigrant Services.
Marisa Castorena Castorena, a Civil Engineering Technology student, works year-round as the primary provider for her family. Her mom works part-time cleaning office buildings downtown, while her dad can’t work due to a long-term illness.
“With the Dreamer Emergency Fund, I was able to cut back on my hours at work and not have to worry about not having funds to pay our mortgage or other expenses,” she said. “My mom says that I need to slow down and take it easy because I will get sick, which I understand, but I’d like to get out of school as soon as possible and start the career of my dreams.
“My family and I are eternally grateful for programs like this.”
Finance major Abraham Gutierrez Rodriguez said the Emergency Fund has kept him in school.
“Without the funds, I would have had to take breaks like sabbatical years to save money for my education,” he said, “and it would have interfered with my academic momentum and motivation. The funds have been of great value to each Dreamer who has received help.”
More than 500 donors have given to the Dreamer Emergency Fund since it was created two years ago, including several University trustees who helped seed the fund: Mario Carrera, Barbara Grogan, Russell Noles and Marissa Molina, who was once an undocumented student herself. Anyone can give through the MSU Denver Foundation’s fund page.
Webster became a registered nurse at Denver Health as soon as Colorado changed its licensure law, and she just started a new job at a private clinic in Denver, a city with 34% Latino residents.
“When someone speaks Spanish and you come into the room for a shift change and introduce yourself in Spanish, their face lights up and they’re more at ease,” she said.
While she has found a career she loves and her husband has started a business in Denver, her future is still dependent on federal courts. Webster’s husband and her two younger brothers are American citizens, but she was born in Mexico and can’t obtain legal status because of how she entered the country.
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She said it has been difficult to find support since graduating from MSU Denver, as her fellow DACA recipients have gone separate ways with jobs and lives of their own. She has adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach toward her immigration status at work and is hopeful that one day there will be a path to permanent citizenship for Dreamers, which three-quarters of Americans support.
“It would be smart from a business perspective to keep DACA,” she said. “We have jobs, we own homes, and we pay taxes. We jump through all the hoops and overcome so many things, but after all this time we’re just hanging in the balance. We’re just trying to have a home, feel safe and do the American dream.”