Belen Sisa has been working full time while attending community college for the past two years building a future that sits on the shaky foundation of a three-year-old immigration program.
Sisa, originally from Argentina, is one of the hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who were able to exit their lives lived illegally in the U.S. and move into a quasi-legal status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program begun by presidential executive action.
The new existence has even been dubbed with it's own name from recipients _ DACAmented.
Since getting approved for DACA, Sisa has been attending Chandler-Gilbert Community College. She’s paid for her tuition of about $250 a class by working at a clothing store and a law firm. She’s now an unpaid intern in the district office of Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-Ariz.
Her next goal is a degree in political science from Arizona State University, where she hopes to transfer. Then, someday, law school.
“It has changed my life in so many ways,” Sisa said about DACA. “It has given me a lot of confidence and safety. And it has also given me courage to push for more.”
Monday marks three years since President Obama announced the DACA program, the precursor to the executive action he took last year to shield from deportation some 4 million to 5 million immigrants living illegally in the U.S.
Since his June 15, 2012 action creating the first DACA, more than 664,600 Dreamers _ a term used to describe the young immigrants _ have been approved, according to the latest numbers from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Although many of the young immigrants who got DACA have gone on to further their education, they have yet to win fights in Congress to put them on a path to legal residency, a first step to citizenship.
Because DACA was created by presidential fiat, their futures remain uncertain, subject to the whim of the next election and the next Congress. In the three years since the program started, there have been some efforts to roll back the program.
Even so, that hasn’t stopped young immigrants from pushing their way further into the fabric of U.S. society.
A study by the Migration Policy Institute released at the two-year anniversary of DACA said that 55 percent of 1.2 million young immigrants immediately eligible for DACA had applied. The pool of eligible youth was expected to grow to 2.1 million as younger immigrants reached the qualifying age of 15 and more immigrants met the education requirements.
While action on immigration reform has stalled at the federal level, states have move forward granting the immigrants with DACA driver's licenses, in-state tuition and other benefits.
"DACA is just a temporary solution, and it is a moral and economic imperative that we make sure DREAMers and other New Americans can fully contribute to our country," said Democratic presidential hopeful Martin O'Malley, who as governor signed a law granting in-state tuition to young immigrants here illegally.
Sisa, who arrived in the United States at the age of 6 and is now 21, found out she qualified for DACA through a television broadcast of the president’s announcement of the federal program from the White House.
“I remember hugging my mom and jumping up and down,” she said. “We were crying, but they were good tears. They were tears of joy. And I knew that everything was going to be different from that moment on.”
A year earlier she was graduating high school unable to accept a college scholarship or get a job.
“It was supposed to be the happiest day of my life. I was supposed to be so proud of all of my accomplishments,” said Sisa, who graduated from Florence High School in Arizona in May 2012. “But I felt like my life was over.”
Her life reversal came in the midst of Obama’s bid for re-election. At the time young immigrants, Latinos and immigration activists had intensified pressure on him over his administration’s deportation policies.
Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream, one of the youth groups that led the protests for relief, said DACA has opened doors for hundreds of thousands of Dreamers who have gone to college, earned internships, bought a car or a house and applied for a credit card. Many have also been able to get better-paying jobs.
“When you look at how successful DACA has been, this is clearly making a case for how successful DAPA is going to be,” Jimenez said, referring to the stalled Deferred Action for Parental Accountability, or DAPA, a new program that Obama announced last November.
DAPA would allow undocumented parents of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents to apply for temporary deportation relief and work permits. The president also expanded DACA so more immigrants who illegally arrived or remained in the U.S. as children could qualify.
On July 10, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments on a lawsuit filed by 26 states challenging the DACA expansion and DAPA. The states, led by Texas, are arguing that Obama’s executive action creating them was unconstitutional.
As young immigrants like Sisa march forward on their education and career paths, Dreamer activists are pressuring a new round of presidential candidates and others running for office.
Jimenez said immigration advocates want the next president to commit to moving forward with Obama’s executive actions, as well as vow to take further action on immigration. Her group and others have been dogging candidates to clearly state their positions on the programs, with some success.
Most Republican presidential candidates oppose Obama’s executive actions on immigration, and some have said they would repeal DACA. Others have said they would leave it in place until immigration reform gets through Congress.
Meanwhile, all three Democrats running for president support the president’s executive actions on immigration and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
The entire issue is expected to get due attention this week when Democrats Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and Republican Ben Carson, all bidding to be the next president, speak at the National Association of Latino and Elected Officials conference in Las Vegas.
Also, Jeb Bush was to declare his bid for the presidency Monday afternoon, joining a crowded GOP field.