As politicians in Washington try and figure out what to do with the DACA program — Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals — across the country, DACA recipients are working on their own plans ... trying to stay in the country if Congress doesn't act in time.
Andrea De La Vega, 26, says she remembers when she first realized her immigration status could hold her back. In high school, she was the editor of the school newspaper, the lead attorney on the mock trial team. She was in the top 10 percent of her class, which all but guaranteed entry into the University of Texas Austin, one of her top schools, when she applied in 2009.
But Andrea was born in Mexico and found out that she didn't have a Social Security number, so she couldn't apply for student loans or scholarships.
She and her sister, Claudia De La Vega, 28, wound up attending Texas colleges that worked with students who don't have documentation, but after graduation, they had no way to work.
So, when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program opened up in 2012, she applied. Now, she's among the nearly 800,000 young people who have work permits and protection from deportation under the Obama-era program.
Unlike many other DACA recipients, Andrea and Claudia came to the United State with their parents legally.
Their father, an architect, got a job in Texas, allowing him to get a work visa that covered the entire family.
Once here, Andrea and Claudia's parents started the process to get permanent residency — a process that took more than 20 years.
By that time they became citizens, three of the four De La Vega kids had aged out of their parents' protection and were left with no legal status — that status made getting a job nearly impossible.
"I had no source of income," Claudia says. She says she found ways to make ends meet, "Like selling stuff, going to the thrift store and reselling it on eBay," she says. "Anything I could do, literally, to get some money."
Andrea faced a similar situation and was paid under the table while working at a restaurant. They had college degrees and career goals. But their immigration status prevented them from getting jobs they were qualified for – until DACA.
"I got my DACA on Feb. 14 of 2014," says Andrea. "I remember being like, 'This is my Valentine.' That's how happy I was to get it."
Now Claudia is an architect, like her dad, and Andrea is an office manager for a psychiatrist.
"As soon as I got it, I applied to jobs in Austin and immediately moved here because it's always what I wanted to do," says Andrea. "This thing was a ticket to start what I wanted to do."
DACA allowed Claudia, who worked five years on an architecture degree, to get a job in her field designing custom homes for a firm in Austin.
President Trump rescinded DACA in early September, giving Congress until March figure to out an alternative plan before protections start to phase out. Some Democrats in the Senate are working toward protecting DREAMers by including an update to the program — Deferred Action For Childhood Arrivals — in the new spending bill.
But the De La Vega sisters have had to figure out other plans, two very different paths forward. Andrea is eligible to renew her work permit for two more years — so that's her immediate plan, but after that, it's unknown.
Claudia has a more permanent solution. She and her fiancé, Marc Jorge, who is a U.S. citizen, decided to move up their wedding. Once they're married, Claudia can apply for a more permanent status.
"If it would have been me, I would have been like - 'Let's wait, in the church, with our parents and the ceremony,' " Claudia says. "We have to do this the right way." But he really wanted to move forward immediately, she says.
Claudia and Marc have dated for three years, but have known each other since they were 15. "He's helped me grow as a person so much," she says. "He's just the most genuine, kind-hearted person I've ever met."
So Marc, Claudia, Andrea and their parents went to the courthouse in downtown Austin where they had a short ceremony with a judge. Andrea signed the marriage certificate as a witness. Marc and Claudia are now legally married ... ahead of their big wedding in December.
Claudia can bring the paperwork to get permanent residency like her parents and youngest brother. But she still worries about her other two siblings.
"I feel so guilty about it," Claudia says. "If I were in their shoes, I wouldn't know what to do."
Andrea says she's trying to stay hopeful. She wants Congress to address immigration reform so people like her can feel safe in the place they call home.
"It's very, very upsetting to feel like you don't really have a place where you belong," Andrea says. "I mean, you don't really belong in Mexico – because most of us haven't been there in years and years and years – and you don't belong here because literally the government's telling you that you don't belong here."
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
President Trump's move to end protection for people brought to this country as children affects different people differently. Consider the story of two sisters. The end of DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, will leave one sister more vulnerable than the other. Here's Claire McInerny of member station KUT.
CLAIRE MCINERNY, BYLINE: Andrea De La Vega was super involved in high school.
ANDREA DE LA VEGA: I was editor of the school newspaper. I was, like - you know. Yeah, I was - like, in the mock trial team, I was head lawyer. I mean, I was in everything.
MCINERNY: And she had great grades, which meant she could go into UT Austin, one of her dream schools.
A. DE LA VEGA: But I couldn't apply play anywhere (laughter) because I didn't have the status to do so. I had nothing.
MCINERNY: That was the first time she realized her immigration status could hold her back. She was born in Mexico and moved to Texas when she was in elementary school. But unlike many of the 800,000 other DACA recipients, Andrea's parents came here legally.
A. DE LA VEGA: They never had the intention or even the thought of doing it, you know, in any illegal manner.
MCINERNY: Her father, an architect, got a job in Texas. This allowed him to get a work visa that covered the entire family. Once here, Andrea's parents started the process to get permanent residency, but it took more than 20 years. By the time that was approved, three of their four kids had aged out of their parents' protection. This meant they had no legal status. Besides Andrea, there are three other De La Vega kids, two sons and...
CLAUDIA DE LA VEGA: My name is Clah-dia (ph) De La Vega. All right, it's actually Claudia De La Vega. But I've been here for so long - right? - that now I just got to keep it that way.
MCINERNY: Claudia's Andrea's older sister - and her roommate. She's an architect like her dad. Both girls attended small colleges in Texas that worked with students without documentation. But after graduation, they had no way to work.
C. DE LA VEGA: I just didn't have a job, had no source of income. Found ways to make ends meet - like selling stuff, going to the thrift store and buying stuff and reselling it on eBay - like, anything I could do - literally - to get some money.
MCINERNY: Andrea faced a similar situation and worked at a restaurant getting paid under the table. Now she's an office manager for a psychiatrist. Both sisters had college degrees and career goals, but their immigration status prevented them from getting jobs they were qualified for - until DACA came along. It made Andrea feel like she finally had options.
A. DE LA VEGA: This thing was literally a ticket to be able to start what I want to do.
MCINERNY: Now that the White House says DACA will end in six months, the De La Vega sisters face two very different paths forward. Andrea renewed her work permit for two more years. But after that, it's unknown. Claudia has a permanent solution, thanks to her fiance, Marc, a U.S. citizen who suggested they move their wedding date.
C. DE LA VEGA: His mentality was, like, you're my soon-to-be wife. And I'm going to protect you, and that's my job.
MCINERNY: So that's what they did.
C. DE LA VEGA: We had an appointment...
MARCOS JORGE: We have an appointment to get married at 4:15.
C. DE LA VEGA: On a Friday afternoon, Claudia, Marc, her sister and their parents went to the courthouse in downtown Austin.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICIANT: We are gathered here today to join Marcos and Claudia in matrimony.
MCINERNY: They joked about this being their dress rehearsal. They'll still have their big wedding in December in their hometown, where they met.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICIANT: Marcos, will you have this person to be your wedded wife?
JORGE: I do.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICIANT: Claudia, will you have this person to be your wedded husband?
C. DE LA VEGA: I do.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICIANT: Please join hands. By the powers vested to me by the state of Texas, I now pronounce you husband and wife.
MCINERNY: Now that Claudia can work and live in the U.S. without DACA, she's worried for Andrea who doesn't have the same options she does.
Do you feel guilty?
C. DE LA VEGA: I do. I feel so guilty about it. And here I am. I'm the one that lucked out pretty much.
MCINERNY: As for Andrea, she's going to stay hopeful Congress will pass a permanent program for childhood arrivals in the coming months.
For NPR News, I'm Claire McInerny in Austin, Texas.
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