SAN DIEGO, Calif. — Lizbeth Contreras, a high school senior and Itzel Guillen, a college senior, have mapped out their career and education futures.
Nonetheless, their graduations are filled with uncertainty even though they have temporary reprieves from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program. Lizbeth, 17, crossed the border from Mexico to San Diego with her mom at the age of 3. Itzel, 22, arrived in the U.S. when she was 4.
“Being Mexican, you wait for your (15th birthday) because of your quinceañera. But I was waiting to become 15 because I knew that then, I could finally apply to DACA,” said Lizbeth.
Since former President Barack Obama authorized DACA in 2012, some 800,000 teens and young adults, many who have grown up in the U.S., have been able to remain in the country, work and go to college. In some states, the program has also allowed them to qualify for scholarships or get driver’s licenses.
The Trump administration has kept that in place, but the arrests of at least three DACA recipients - most recently Daniela Vargas who was picked up after leaving a news conference in Jackson, Miss., has eroded the confidence of some DACA recipients that they are shielded from the Trump immigrant crackdown.
Growing up, Lizbeth developed leadership skills by helping out at her church or in her community and joining extracurricular activities in school that promote social justice such as the group MEChA, Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan, where she joined the executive board as a freshman.
Before she turned 15, Lizbeth and her family collected all of the required documents and fees needed to apply to DACA.
For Lizbeth’s parents, DACA meant an opportunity and an opening of doors for Lizbeth’s success. As the eldest of three, she serves as an example to her siblings who are U.S. citizens. They realize that if she doesn’t let being undocumented stop her, then they should be able to accomplish more since they don’t have that obstacle, she said.
“I hope that I can be a good role model, not only to my family but to those young kids that come into this country, I hope that they know that anything is possible with hard work and determination,” she said.
Today, Lizbeth is vice president of her senior class at Lincoln High School in San Diego, California. She’s being considered by universities like Harvard and Columbia. She aspires to major in political science and business, with hopes of becoming an immigration lawyer.
“I want to be able to create a non-profit law firm, where we provide the resources without people having to pay ridiculous prices for something as small as reviewing a contract. One day if I do win a case and, for example, the person gets to stay with their family, just knowing that I helped them is going to feel like the most satisfying feeling ever, “ Lizbeth said.
Itzel is in her last semester at San Diego State University, where she’s majoring in political science with a minor in anthropology. She works as an Immigration Integration Coordinator for Alliance San Diego, a non-profit organization that offers assistance to immigrants.
She offers immigration help by setting up legal consultations and making sure that the community is aware of current laws and their rights.
Itzel said one of the more rewarding aspects of the job is "where you're finalizing somebody's application, and you're giving it to them. And they know that getting that work permit is going to change their life."
Itzel’s interest in human rights spiked early on. Her mom would take her to marches in Mexico as a kid. At the time, she would get mad and complain about them, but she gained an appreciation for them as she grew older.
“She’s inspired me, she's been very vocal about immigrant rights issues and about why immigrating was the best choice for her family. The reason why I chose political science and activism as a career was because it hit home. I understood my mother's struggle, and I understood what she was fighting for,” Itzel said.
Itzel also hopes to one day become an immigration lawyer. But she's putting law school on hold at the moment because she’s unsure of what will happen with DACA under the new administration.
Lizbeth and Itzel fear that the Trump administration will end the program, which would in fact make accomplishing their goals more difficult. But for now, they’re continuing their work and remaining hopeful.