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'We came for a better future': A conversation with DACA-recipient Alan Aleman

Alan Aleman in Washington D.C. for the State of the Union address, courtesy photo
Alan Aleman in Washington D.C. for the State of the Union address, courtesy photo

Twenty-year-old Alan Aleman was the first Las Vegan to receive a work permit thorough the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal program that allows undocumented young people who came to the United States as children to pursue education or military service without fear of being deported. President Obama shared Aleman’s story during a recent visit to Las Vegas, and Aleman was invited by the first lady to attend the State of the Union address Feb. 12.

How did the president come to know and tell your story?
There’s a local group of Dreamers here in Las Vegas, and the White House asked them to see if they had any Dreamers who got the work permit here in Las Vegas, so they nominated me.

When did you get your work permit? Are you working now?
I got it in October. I applied the first day, and I got it two months later. I’m working for a nonprofit that called Hermandad Mexicana helps people with the immigration process, including deferred action. It helps people with their citizenship, new visas, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and GED classes in Spanish.

What was it like getting a call from the White House? Were you surprised?
The first time I got the call I thought it was joking around. I never thought it was something real. Staff from the White House called. She was the one who called me when President Obama came to Las Vegas. She was like, “Oh, we have a great opportunity — again!”

What was it like being there, and being seated next to the first lady?
It’s amazing. It’s awesome. You have a speech you want to say to the first lady, but when she’s in front of you, you forget it. But she’s really, really nice.

Were you able to speak with her? What did you say?
Yes, both Michelle and President Obama. When I spoke to the first lady, I told her “Thank you for inviting me. My name is Alan Aleman, I’m one of the Dreamers here in Las Vegas.” She was like, “I know who you are. Thank you for coming here, just keep the hard work going.” Then at the State of the Union, the White House gave us a surprise, that we were going to take a picture with President Obama. I only spoke to him for 3 to 5 seconds, and I told him, “Thank you for pushing immigration reform. The Hispanic community has faith in you.” That’s all I was able to say.

What organizations are you involved in?
I’m part of the Latin Chamber of Commerce board, the American Red Cross of Southern Nevada, I’m a board member, and the Latino Youth Leadership Alumni, which I’m an executive board member.

Have you been involved in politics, even though you can’t vote?
A little bit. It started three years ago in 2010. The first time I went to a political event, it was the re-election of Harry Reid. This year I started to attend when President Obama came to Las Vegas, the rallies and all that. People ask me, “Are you a Democrat or a Republican?” and I always say, “I’m neither one. I support people who support my dream.”

What kind of reform do we need?
We need to fix our broken immigration system. We need to stop separating families. We also need a path to citizenship for every single undocumented that has a clean record, knows English, pays taxes. People say we break the law, but we came for a better future.

How did you get by before your work permit? Did you work then?
The first semester, my parents paid for the tuition. Little by little it became a little difficult for them, so I had no choice but to get a job that got paid under the table. That was to cover bills and help with household expenses.

What was your experience working under the table?
It’s a little difficult. Sometimes your employers aren’t being fair, or they’re paying you less than the minimum wage. And why? Because they know you need a job and you’ll stay there because there’s no way you will find another job without legal status. They know you’re undocumented, so they pay you less, they treat you differently than legal U.S. citizens.

Did that happen to you?
Not really, but a little bit. Sometimes they let me work more than 80 hours and they paid me the same, no overtime. I never had a fear of being fired. I think like, yeah I can be fired, but they can get more in trouble. Even though we’re undocumented, we still have rights here. The law is protecting us.

You’re studying science with hopes of being a doctor. Do you have a plan after CSN?
I will either join the Air Force and then UNLV, or UNLV and then the Air Force. It depends if immigration reform happens. Right now with my work permit, I’m not allowed to join any armed forces.

Why are you interested in joining the Air Force?
It was a little challenging with my parents, because they think I’m going to die or something. But I told them the main reason was because this country gave me a lot of opportunities, opportunities unfortunately my country never gave me. By joining the Air Force, I would be thanking the country, serving my country for these opportunities.

How has your life changed since the State of the Union?
It’s like living in a new world. The press wants to talk to me. You should’ve seen my phone Monday. It was ringing till Wednesday. I think that I have more responsibility to represent the immigrant community, as well as the Hispanic community. It’s been a little challenging. For example, conservative media, Republican media have been criticizing me for attending the State of the Union for being undocumented.

How do you deal with the criticism?
To be honest, at the beginning, it was a little bit challenging. But little by little, I realized it’s a few individuals. It’s not like the whole world. I noticed these people are misinformed. They don’t have the facts and they don’t know what we face.