When Alejandra Duran Arreola was 14 years old, she and her four younger siblings walked from their home town in Mexico through the Arizona desert with their mother. After crossing the border, they eventually settled in Georgia, where they did what work they could find, harvesting onions and eventually starting a small cleaning business.
Years later, Arreola, who is studying to be an OB-GYN at Loyola’s Stritch School of Medicine, became one of the almost 800,000 undocumented immigrants who were allowed to remain in the United States under an Obama-era policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which allowed them a temporary reprieve from deportation.
But President Donald Trump, fulfilling a major campaign promise, ended DACA in September. He set March 5 as the policy’s final expiration date, giving the issue to Congress to find a permanent solution.
Alongside disagreements about the federal budget that led to a brief shutdown of the government over the weekend, tension over the terms of a DACA fix is growing. The DACA recipients — Dreamers, as they’ve come to be known — are left wondering what their ultimate fates will be.
For many like Arreola, that uncertainty is nothing new.
“At some point we get used to it,” Arreola said. “At some point you cannot be thinking about whether or not you’re going to be here next year. That’s how I cope with it.”
Former President Barack Obama signed DACA in June 2012, on the 30th anniversary of Plyler v. Doe, a Supreme Court decision that prevented public schools from charging children extra tuition because they were undocumented. DACA made Dreamers eligible for Social Security cards and driver’s licenses and granted them legal residence — things that are often required for people like Arreola to get jobs in their fields.
Arreola, who recently accompanied Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin to Washington, D.C. to advocate for Dreamers, is preparing to begin her residency. She will need those DACA protections to continue pursuing her career. Having spent years preparing to enter this stage of her medical training, Arreola’s future is in the hands of Congress.
“I do hope that the Democrats and Republicans come to an understanding that this is much more than a whim,” Arreola said. “This is about people’s lives.”
After just three days, Senate leaders announced they had reached an agreement to reopen the government, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell promising Democrats the Dreamer issue would be addressed. Both parties must now come to an agreement on DACA by the March 5 deadline. As part of such a deal, Trump and Republicans in Congress want funding for border security, Trump’s long-promised border wall and other immigration reforms.
But the ongoing controversy over government funding has complicated the issue. Congress has been unable to agree on a long-term budget since late September, leaving the government running on a series of short-term spending plans called continuing resolutions since then.
The current continuing resolution ends Feb. 8, which leaves even less time for Congress to come up with a solution for the Dreamers.
To get Democrats to agree to the latest continuing resolution, McConnell promised there would be “a level playing field” and “free and open debate” on DACA before it expires.
While the final terms of a DACA fix aren’t yet clear, a small bipartisan group of senators announced a tentative deal Jan. 11. That deal was quickly shot down by Trump, but any future agreement will likely include many of its terms: a path to citizenship for Dreamers after 10 years in the United States, nearly $3 billion for border security and changes to the U.S. immigration system such as ending the visa lottery program and preventing the parents of Dreamers from becoming citizens.
Dreamers have worried DACA would be used as political leverage since the program started, said another undocumented Loyola student named Vince, who asked to be identified only by a nickname because of his immigration status.
“I remember the first sentiment [undocumented] people had towards DACA was that they were afraid,” Vince said. “We celebrated the program, but we were afraid that this exact thing would happen. People have mortgages [and] people have student loans, and for them to out of nowhere be like, ‘DACA is expiring and your permits to work will expire,’ it’s just insanely incomprehensible to think about how much [Dreamers’] lives have been put in limbo. This is the exact fear we’ve had from the beginning — it’s just devastating.”
But even though he worries about his fellow Dreamers’ uncertain outcomes, Vince said he isn’t opposed to increasing funding for the border.
“I do think there should be a process — a quicker process than there is now — to become naturalized, but I’m not too against border security,” Vince said. “I think there needs to be more border security, not just to prevent people from coming. There’s so much that goes on like drug trafficking [and] people dying trying to cross over.”
Arreola agreed. She said while she understands the need for border security, she thinks Trump and Republicans are asking for too much.
“Spending billions of dollars on building the wall is not going to fix the security problems that we have,” Arreola said. “We cannot spend $20 billion to build the wall; at some point, it just becomes nonsense that they’re going to do that in exchange for our lives, for what we have endured.”
Another undocumented Loyola student, who asked to remain anonymous because of her immigration status, said she worries Trump can’t be trusted to push for a permanent DACA solution.
“He’s proven over and over again that he changes up his words so many times, he claims he didn’t say things when there’s proof that he said it,” she said. “He denies all responsibility. So for him to say ‘I might promise citizenship,’ at this point he’s just talking out of his ass.”
The White House didn’t respond to requests for comment, but Trump has previously said he wants to see a solution for the dreamers. He promised last February “to deal with DACA with heart.”
Despite the anxiety over DACA, Arreola urged her fellow Dreamers to remain hopeful.
“In moments like this, when you see that your life is worth nothing to people, it’s really easy to hate somebody,” Arreola said. “It’s really easy to start finding who are culprits for everything that’s wrong in your life. But we are not whiny people. At the end of the day, I do have hope that this situation will be fixed. We cannot hate, and we can never lose hope. We must stay focused.”