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PHOENIX, Ariz. — After years burying her college diploma in a box, Angelica Gaona felt she could proudly display it after she was granted protection from deportation and given permission to work through an Obama administration program now at risk.
Wednesday marks four years since President Barack Obama announced the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program.
But the lives of more than 728,000 undocumented young immigrants — often referred to as Dreamers — that the federal government says have been approved for DACA are in a fragile state.
The prospects of Donald Trump as president have many facing the possibility he could end DACA's protection from deportation and work permits that has allowed young people like Gaona to put educations to use, find good jobs, build families and build futures.
“It does cross my mind how many people would be affected if the program were to go away,” Gaona told NBC News Latino.
Gaona has been working as a teacher in Arizona while pursuing a master’s degree for the past two years.
She came to the United States from Mexico when she was 7 years old. Her undocumented status had prevented her from putting to use the bachelor’s degree in communication studies that she earned from Arizona State University in 2009. Instead, she had been working as a babysitter and cleaning houses.
“I didn’t even hang my degree,” she said. “I kept it inside a box because it made me so mad. To me, it was just a piece of paper that had no significance up until Obama announced DACA.”
That announcement “brought back hope,” she said.
Her lack of experience made finding a job difficult once she was approved for DACA in 2013.But she found her way to teaching when she was accepted into Teach for America, a program that trains recent college graduates to become teachers and places them in areas that have a high need for teachers. Often, the schools need teachers who speak Spanish and bilingual.
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“I’ve always had a passion for education," Gaona said.
For the past two years, she has been teaching elementary school students in Arizona while also pursuing a master’s degree in elementary education at Grand Canyon University with financial help from Teach for America. She graduated in April.
In addition to being able to become a teacher, Gaona said DACA allowed her to apply for a driver’s license and to afford to get health insurance.
She has since applied for legal residency status, which she can now obtain through her husband who is a U.S. citizen. Until she is granted legal permanent residency, however, her DACA status is what keeps all her work from being yanked away.
Because Obama authorized the DACA program through executive action, the future of recipients remains uncertain, subject to the outcome of the next presidential election and the next Congress.
Trump, the GOP's presumptive nominee, has said he would rescind Obama’s executive actions on immigration, which include the DACA program. Meanwhile the Democrat's presumptive nominee Hillary Clinton has said she would not only support and keep the DACA program, she would go further than Obama did on immigration.
Angelica Hernandez, who was 9 years old when she came to Arizona from Mexico with her family, is another Dreamer flourishing under DACA.
Hernandez was just about to start graduate school at Stanford University in California when DACA was announced. Once approved, she was able to work as a teaching assistant while pursuing a master's degree in engineering. After graduating in June 2014, she moved back to Arizona and now works as a project engineer.
Her husband Juan Amaya is also a DACA recipient and an engineer. The Phoenix couple recently became parents and purchased a home.
"DACA changed my life completely," Hernandez said. "I was able to get a job in something I studied and have a degree in. I was able to buy a home and do something as simple as starting to build credit."
Given breathing room to pursue educations and to work, many young Dreamers have been integrating themselves into the fabric of American society. A recent survey by United We Dream, an immigrant activist group, found many DACA recipients are getting new and higher paying jobs and, as a result, are becoming more financially independent.
According to the Center for American Progress, DACA recipients live in all 50 states. In addition, about two-thirds of DACA recipients help their families financially with needed support, according to United We Dream's survey.
Two years after announcing DACA, Obama took executive action again. The president expanded DACA so more immigrants who’ve been living in the U.S. illegally since they were children could qualify.
He also announced the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA, to allow undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to apply for temporary deportation relief and work permits.
But a lawsuit filed by 26 states put DAPA and expanded DACA on hold. The states, led by Texas, argue that Obama exceeded his powers by creating the programs. A judge's decision to block the programs from going forward is pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. A decision could come this month.
The DACA program announced in 2012 is not being challenged in the lawsuit.
Goana said she's eager to see it and Obama's other executive action programs replaced with an immigration reform law that allows immigrants to remain here, work and build lives.