For nearly a year, Edilsa Lopez endured human trafficking as her captors sent her from house to house in trips across the Mexican-American border transporting drugs.
Lopez had neared the end of her third day crossing the desert into the U.S. one final time before she felt like she wanted to die.
She didn’t know which city she was in at the time, but she remembers meeting an English-speaking woman who would eventually help reunite her with her mother, who had moved to the States.
At the time, she was just 11 years old.
“No matter who you’re with, you have to earn their trust because they dispose of the weak ones,” Lopez, now 24, said. “I have no idea where I got my strength, but I knew that I had to be strong, otherwise they’d leave me behind.”
A decade later, Lopez is a success story. After finishing high school in Houston, Lopez went on to study international relations and global studies at UT, where she graduated in 2015. She currently works as an accountant downtown with the possibility of pursuing a career in law waiting on the horizon.
But the life Lopez has worked so hard for was thrown out of balance last week when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the White House was rescinding a program that makes work possible for her and other undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and teens. The decision was delayed for six months, or nearly two semesters, so Congress can work on a legislative path forward.
The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, dates back to 2012, when former President Barack Obama authorized it in an executive order to protect beneficiaries from being deported and gave them work permits on top of a social security number for a two-year period. Obama gave the order after Congress failed to pass the DREAM Act, immigration reform that would have given undocumented immigrants — or “Dreamers” — similar benefits and protections.
Recipients were eligible for DACA if they came to the U.S. before 2007 at the age of 16 or younger. They couldn’t have felonies on their record and no more than three misdemeanors, among other requirements.
While attending UT, Lopez, who first applied for DACA in 2012, was able to work as a messenger in the Texas Legislature and as an intern for an Austin law firm. She also scored a number of private scholarships — DACA recipients are not eligible for federal financial aid — to help out with the cost of tuition and rent.
Navigating life was often difficult, but at least now it was possible.
An uncertain future
Daniela Rojas saw the DACA decision coming, but nothing could prepare her for how she felt the day Sessions officially made the announcement.
“The one thing that really pissed me off was when he said ‘illegal aliens’ are taking American jobs. Like, what the fuck?” said Rojas, a Latin-American studies junior. “He really said that. Who does that? That is so wrong.”
Rojas came to the U.S. from Bogota, Colombia, with her parents when she was 11. She is currently a member of Jolt, a Texas-based group that encourages political power among Latinos, which has a UT chapter she is a part of.
“To have this news was so discouraging,” Rojas said. “We keep organizing, showing people that we’re here and that we’re fighting back, and then (they) hit me with this news.”
There isn’t a clear answer for how many students are in the same situation as Rojas. The UT System nor the University track whether students are DACA recipients like many universities across Texas, according to spokespeople from both entities. The University of Oklahoma has 80 students who are in the program, according to the university’s newspaper.
While she has some memories of life back in Colombia, Rojas said her whole life is here in the U.S., and even most of her family lives in the States with her while a small amount remain back home.
Rojas said the thought of being deported back to Colombia is terrifying, but it’s a spine-chilling possibility that she’s grown accustomed to while in college. Now, it’s just closer to reality.
“Being a Dreamer means you live in uncertainty all the time, because you never know what’s going to happen,” Rojas said. “Like this — I have DACA one day, and the next it’s gone.”
But Rojas is undeterred. After the decision, she said a number of former teachers, friends and family reached out offering their support.
“People are going to fight this back,” Rojas said.
For the next six months, there’s not much than Lopez, Rojas and others like them can do but lobby Congress for a legislative fix — which many hope comes in the form of a revamped DREAM Act.
Until then, Rojas said she’ll be fine until 2019, when her work permit expires. Others whose work permits expire before March 5, 2018, leaving them unable to renew, aren’t as lucky. The White House is also not taking any new DACA applications following their decision, putting undocumented students preparing for college in a bind.
For Lopez, her plans for law school and her current career prospects were put on hold as she waits with uncertainty for forces out of her control.
“I get so upset because my life has not been easy,” Lopez said. “I just wish that I could plan my life and have my own things, without people trying to take them away.”