Nineteen-year-old Alejandro Zuniga has dreams of becoming an aerospace engineer, but those dreams could come to a screeching halt if President Trump rescinds an Obama-era immigration executive order in the coming days.
Undocumented immigrants like Alejandro depend on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA) for resources, such as the ability to receive in-state tuition or a driver's license--resources seemingly paramount to the young adult lifestyle.
"DACA has enabled me to feel like my peers. I feel normalized. I feel like an American."
Alejandro, a mechanical engineer major at Northern Virginia Community College, moved from Bolivia to the United States with his family when he was seven. DACA allows him, and an estimated 800,000 others, to receive temporary amnesty, subject to renewal every two years. But not everyone can obtain the status. Those seeking deferred action must meet a series of age and educational requirements overseen by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Applicants, for example, must arrive to the U.S. before they turn 16, seek--at least-- a high school degree, and pose no threat to national security or public safety.
Since DACA came to fruition in 2012, the program has fostered polarizing politics. Most recently, in June, ten states led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton delivered Trump an ultimatum: either repeal DACA or face a lawsuit. In a letter addressed to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, states including Arkansas, Alabama, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia, argued that "the Executive Branch does not have the unilateral power" to grant undocumented immigrants "lawful presence and work authorization."
These states demanded that President Trump provide them with clarity on the program's future by September 5th. If Trump doesn't phase out DACA, the states warned that they'll litigate their case in court. This would force the administration to decide whether or not to defend the immigration policy in court. That responsibility would fall on Sessions, who, in the past, has expressed vehement opposition to the program.
Unlike Sessions, Trump's position on the issue has been unclear. On the campaign trail, he rallied his supporters with tougher immigration laws and stricter enforcement. Since he's taken office, however, the 45th commander-in-chief said he'll treat the so-called dreamers with "heart."
His unpredictability has mobilized congressional leaders like Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, who is working hard to sway the president's decision one way.
"We're doing everything we can to lift up these young people and their stories to try to convince the White House that it would be a bad idea to go backwards on this," Kaine told Circa at a Wednesday round-table event with DACA recipients.
One of those stories included former DACA recipient, Giancarla, who chose not to share her last name for security reasons. Before she obtained DACA status, Giancarla lived with fear, under the shadows as an undocumented immigration with no protection.
"For six years, I was really scared just to even say my name. For the longest time, I didn't tell anyone I was undocumented. And then in high school, I told one of my counselors that I was undocumented, and he said, unfortunately because of my status--that my lack of status--I wasn't going to be able to college. That was devastating for me."
Then things changed for Giancarla in 2012 when she was a senior in high school. Obama's executive order provided her with an opportunity to enroll at Northern Virginia Community College, and eventually Radford University, where she gradated with a bachelors degree in international economics in May 2016.
"I am thankful for DACA because I was able to work and go to work and to help my family with the house and I was able to transfer to a four-year university in 2014," Giancarla continued. "Before even being a legal resident, I had all these opportunities. And if it wasn't for DACA, I would have been in Bolivia right now, or I don't know where I would be."
Her story doesn't even there, however. Giancarla, who became a legal resident after marrying her college sweetheart, worries every day about her sister--a current DACA recipient who's preparing her college applications. She says that if DACA is repealed, her family cannot afford to send her sister to school because they'll be forced to pay out-of-state tuition.
"I'm scared what's about to happen," Giancarla said emotionally at the round-table event.
Opponents of DACA say that, while they're drawn to stories like Alejandro's and Giancarla's, the program sets a bad precedent. Mark Krickorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, argued that immigration policies like DACA spur chain reactions.
"All amnesties attract illegal immigration because they send a clear message to people who are abroad who are thinking about coming here illegally," he said.
He's not the only one calling for reform. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio also called for DACA's replacement.
"I do believe it's unconstitutional whether you agree with the merits or not. But I do believe it should be replaced," he said on CNN.
Congress is trying to deliver reform. Sens. Tom Cotton, R-Arkansas, and David Perdue, R-Georgia, spearheaded the "Reforming American Immigration for a Strong Economy (RAISE) Act," which aims to replace the current permanent employment visa-system with a skills-based program. This would prioritize immigrants who are best posed to succeed in the United States and expand the economy.
But while Trump's decision on DACA's future remains unclear, one thing is certain. DACA recipients like Alejandro will continue to fight not only for permanent residency, but also for his dreams.
"DACA taken away, it's like taking away those little hopes and dreams I had. But [that's] not going to I'm going to stop fighting. I'm still going to be here. I'm still going to want to go to school."