Miramar Group CEO Juan Ochoa knows what it is like to grow up living in the U.S. illegally. Brought from Mexico when he was 8 years old, he heard stories from his uncles about immigration raids, saw relatives get deported, and felt "a sense of desperation and anxiety" about his future.
Ochoa, now a U.S. citizen, feels fiercely protective of the two young employees in his company's Chicago headquarters who are authorized to work thanks to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which the Trump administration announced Tuesday will be rescinded. The two are among more than 42,000 people in Illinois signed up for the program, instituted by then-President Barack Obama for people brought to the U.S. illegally as minors, who now must count on Congress to pass legislation so they can stay.
"I understand their anxiety because I felt that anxiety for myself," said Ochoa, who is intent on helping his DACA employees keep their jobs.
Anxiety rippled through Illinois' business community after Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the "winding down" of DACA, which has allowed nearly 800,000 young people across the country to live and work without fear of deportation. The Department of Homeland Security said Tuesday that it would no longer accept new applications for DACA, while those already enrolled will be able to continue working until their permits expire. Permits that expire before March 5, 2018, can be renewed for another two years by Oct. 5.
Illinois business leaders voiced disappointment with the move and warned of significant economic harm from ending the program, which permits nearly 37,000 people in Illinois to work. Ending DACA would be a $2.3 billion hit to Illinois' annual gross domestic product, according to a July report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress. The nation would lose $460.3 billion in GDP and $24.6 billion in Social Security and Medicare tax contributions over the next decade, the report said.
"From a business point of view, this has a real effect on high-end jobs in the tech areas, it has a real effect on the entire medical establishment, and of course it has a real effect on the low-end entry level jobs," said John Rowe, chairman emeritus of Exelon and co-chair of the Illinois Business Immigration Coalition.
Apple CEO Tim Cook tweeted Sunday, "250 of my Apple coworkers are #Dreamers" and that "they deserve our respect as equals." Microsoft's president and chief legal officer said in a blog post that at least 27 employees are DACA beneficiaries.
With their future legal status at the mercy of Congress, DACA recipients could see job prospects in jeopardy as bosses or potential employers don't want to take the chance.
"I can see people being told they can't continue to work and pay taxes, that within six months there will be people who have to be fired by employers," Rowe said.
Sam Toia, CEO of the Illinois Restaurant Association, said he imagines restaurant general managers will think twice about hiring DACA recipients if they could be gone in six months.
"It takes a good six months for someone to really know what they're doing if they're working on the line," Toia said. "If I'm the manager of a restaurant and I'm thinking I will hire them, I think they will take a harder look."
DACA recipients, many of whom have lived in the U.S. since they were infants, were able to pursue better education, careers and promotions after the program was implemented. Two-thirds of DACA recipients got better-paying jobs after getting their permits, and nearly half got jobs in line with their education, according to the Center for American Progress report.
Carlos Roa, 30, who was brought to the U.S. from Venezuela when he was 2 years old and has never returned, got his architecture degree and works as an assistant project manager at a construction management company that builds the exterior glass facades for Chicago highrises. The idea that that he could be sent back to Venezuela, which most of his family has fled as a result of its political instability, is "unimaginable and unrealistic," he said.
Roa worries Congress won't be able to pass legislation protecting him and his peers in the six-month window the Trump administration has given, considering hurricane relief, budget issues and many other priorities on its agenda. He said the prospect of losing his job is "draining" and frustrating, given his economic contributions.
"I'm working on projects that are worth millions of dollars," Roa said. "It doesn't make sense for me to be stressed about this."
Nearly 80 Illinois executives were among 357 business leaders across the U.S. who signed an open letter to Trump urging him to preserve DACA and urging Congress to pass legislation protecting DACA recipients. Among those who signed the letter — which was organized by FWD.us, a pro-immigration group founded by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft's Bill Gates and other technology leaders — were Crate and Barrel co-founders Carole and Gordon Segal, United Airlines' former Chairman Glenn Tilton, and the presidents of the Illinois Institute of Technology and Northwestern, DePaul and Dominican universities.
The Illinois Business Immigration Coalition, a group of leaders urging comprehensive immigration reform, on Monday released a guide for employers and their DACA employees to help them navigate the change. It says, for example, that Social Security numbers issued to DACA recipients are theirs for life, but urges DACA recipients get a drivers license as soon as possible if they haven't done so and advises those traveling abroad to come back to the U.S. as quickly as possible. It is working with the nonprofit Resurrection Project to provide legal help and information sessions to DACA recipients every Tuesday through September.
Terry Howerton, CEO of Chicago-based Tech Nexus, an incubator and venture capital investor for technology startups, said revoking DACA is not only a disservice to the young people who were able to start pursuing careers, but to a nation that could benefit from their drive and entrepreneurship.
"Technology startups would simply not exist without the participation of immigrants and immigrant entrepreneurs and because of these DACA kids," said Howerton, who said 40 percent of venture-backed companies count immigrant entrepreneurs on their founding teams. He hopes the plight of the group lights a fire under Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Ochoa, of Miramar Group, isn't taking any chances, and is speaking with attorneys to help his employees navigate the tricky months ahead. He sees in his employees with DACA permits ambitious self-starters who are good for his company and his country, based on his own experience.
After he got legal status thanks to President Ronald Reagan's 1986 amnesty, Ochoa served as a U.S. Marine, as CEO of the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and as CEO of the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority before founding Miramar, a commercial facilities management company that employs about 115 people across the U.S.
Jay Meza, 23, who works as a global administration manager at Miramar, is the employee Ochoa is most concerned about. Meza, who lives in the Pilsen neighborhood, came to the U.S. from Guanajuato, Mexico, when he was 3 years old and has never been back. Thanks to DACA, he was able to go to college and get a good job, but his permit expires in about a year.
"We had an opportunity to live correctly and better without the fear, and now it's hard to think that they will take it away," said Meza, who worries about paying bills and making car payments if he has to leave his job.
One idea Ochoa and Meza have been hatching is for Meza to leave the country and live with relatives he's never met in Mexico, and then apply for an H-1B visa, a temporary work permit meant for higher-skilled workers. It's a gamble, as the visas are capped and in high demand, but they aren't sure what their other options are.
"It's a risk, but it's a risk that we're willing to take," Meza said.