As President Donald Trump weighs their future, many of the young people known as “dreamers” are considering how much they could be asked to sacrifice to become American citizens, to shield themselves from deportation and to protect their parents or the life they’ve built.
Dreamers, young people whose parents brought them to the U.S. illegally as children, have formed coalitions in Arizona and across the U.S. to advocate for immigration reform.
Now, under a president who rallied his base as an immigration hardliner and vowed to build a wall on the border with Mexico, they are imagining the human fallout of impending political decisions.
“I won’t take anything that is going to put anyone at risk from my own benefit,” dreamer Belen Sisa said. “At the end of the day, I know who I am, and I know who a lot of these leaders (dreamers) are, and we’re not going down without a fight.”
Sisa has led local and national fights for migrant rights, including pushing for in-state tuition for dreamers at Arizona colleges and organizing protests to stop deportations.
On Tuesday, she joined a demonstration at the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters in Phoenix.
Migrant-rights, faith and other community groups launched a weeklong action at ICE to call on Trump to protect Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, an Obama-era program that grants qualifying dreamers temporary protection from deportation and renewable two-year work permits.
To apply for DACA, young migrants must meet certain requirements, including having entered the U.S. before turning 16, having no serious criminal background and living continuously in the U.S. since June 15, 2007.
The Trump administration is under pressure from a group of Republican state attorneys general who have threatened to sue if DACA is not ended by Sept. 5.
The president has continued to focus on fighting illegal immigration, taking to Twitter this week to blast Mexico for that country's crime and vowing that it would pay for a wall. But he has seemed unsure of how to handle a group of migrants who have earned the sympathy of many Americans and politicians on both sides of the aisle.
At a February press conference, shortly after his inauguration, Trump said, "We’re going to show great heart. DACA is a very, very difficult subject for me, I will tell you."
On Sunday, White House officials said that the president has wrestled with the issue for months.
'Trying to make us choose...'
In Arizona and across the United States, about 800,000 people benefit from DACA.
Sisa and other dreamers are pushing Trump to continue the program. But they are also preparing for what the president and his fellow Republican leaders, who campaigned on stopping illegal immigration, could ask for in return for protecting the program.
“This administration is trying to pull us apart, divide us. It is trying to make us choose between our future and between having our families be here with us,” she said. “It’s a decision that no one should have to ever make.”
In a June 29 letter, attorneys general from Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Viriginia wrote that they wanted the secretary of Homeland Security to phase out the DACA program. They threatened to sue if the program continued.
It remains unclear if the Department of Justice would defend DACA, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions has been a fierce critic of the program.
Even Arizona immigration hardliners have struggled with the issue.
In June, Sen. John Kavanagh, R-Fountain Hills, who was a co-sponsor of Senate Bill 1070, Arizona’s much-debated immigration-enforcement law, said he wanted stricter immigration and deportation policies but had empathy for dreamers.
Kavanagh said he would prefer to give dreamers a path to citizenship.
"Through no fault of their own, they were born and raised here and they’re Americanized. I don’t think it would be fair to throw them into a foreign country of which they know nothing," he said.
Still, Kavanagh said he did not believe Democrats would support a bipartisan effort to aid dreamers unless it included relief for all immigrants in the country without legal status. That's something he said Republicans would never compromise on.
Without hope of a compromise, he said Trump may choose to end the DACA program rather than continue it indefinitely.
Some dreamers fear that Trump could end the program as a strategy to gain greater bargaining power to toughen immigration policies and win funding to build a 30-foot wall along the border with Mexico.
Others believe Trump could offer a deal to extend or even reform the program so it includes a pathway to citizenship for dreamers, but only if such an incentive includes an agreement that could lead to mass deportations for dreamers’ parents.
Finding a better future
At the center of this political debate are parents who crossed borders, broke laws and risked their lives to seek a better life for their children here.
Sisa said she believes dreamers are being used as political pawns in the immigration debate.
Since qualifying for DACA, Sisa has earned scholarships to attend Arizona State University, has become a student leader at the campus and worked on Sen. Bernie Sanders's presidential campaign.
Sisa’s father is an undocumented immigrant. He has supported her education and her political activism. She knows what her dad would want her to do if she had an opportunity to become a citizen.
“What your parents always want for you is to be OK. They’re willing to sacrifice whatever it is to know that you’re safe,” she said.
Karina Ruiz is a leader with the Arizona Dream Act Coalition and a DACA recipient. In 2015, she earned a bachelor’s in biochemistry at ASU while working full-time and raising three children.
Ruiz said she knows Trump could end protections for dreamers any day. She chooses to still plan for her future and the future of her children and parents in the U.S.
She said she can’t stomach the idea of accepting protections that would risk her parents, who do not have legal status.
“We’ve fought hard for (immigration reform) for all our families,” she said. “How can we give that up?”
Still, she said, she must acknowledge a tough truth of what a pathway to citizenship would mean for dreamers.
“It means we can vote,” she said. “It’s the only way we can change things.”
'We felt protected'
DACA gave hundreds of thousands of immigrants an opportunity to show Americans what dreamers can achieve if given the opportunity, Sisa said.
“This program, it’s what brought us to this moment and it brought us many victories because we felt in some ways protected,” she said.
Sisa hopes that after Trump’s comments on the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, more Americans will recognize that the president campaigned on, and now is pushing through, policies that discriminate against people of color.
“He is using specific groups, targeting people like Muslims, like Latinos, like African-Americans, to really distract the American public, and no one took it seriously until he became president, until he said (after Charlottesville) that both sides are wrong,” she said. “There are no both sides that are wrong to anyone who has been discriminated against in the past, it is very clear to us.”
Reyna Montoya, 26, is among the thousands of young people who have waited on the administration's decision regarding their fate. Since 2012, Montoya has qualified for DACA protections.
She said the program gave her the opportunity to earn an education, buy a house and become an educator.
Montoya came to Arizona when she was 13. She said her father was seeking asylum from violence in Mexico. Her parents are still seeking legal immigration status.
She founded Aliento, a community organization focused on supporting youth without legal status.
On Saturday, she joined dreamers and people who back their cause at a Phoenix church. The congregation talked about how they could help dreamers fight for DACA and what they would be willing to do to protect their neighbors if Trump ends the program.
“I think that people that care about this do need to understand that this doesn’t have to happen,” she said. “It’s only going to happen if the American public stays silent, if the local officials allow this atrocity to happen, allow them to start deporting us and our families.”
On Tuesday, she joined the demonstration at ICE, calling on Trump to continue DACA. She sees Trump's lack of action on DACA as a signal to the migrant community.
“I think that the truth of the matter is, if Trump really cared about people like me or other DACA recipients, he wouldn’t even (allow) rumors that he is going to end DACA,” she said. “Ending DACA, what that means is they’re literally starting my deportation — it’s not a matter of if they’re going to deport me, it’s a matter of when.”
Montoya said that it’s easy for dreamers to get discouraged knowing that their lives could be upended and that they signed up for a government program that gives the Trump administration access to the addresses of hundreds of thousands of dreamers.
They know where we live, she said.
Montoya said that dreamers have turned to social media to comfort one another.
“They can take away our DACA, but they can never take away our dreams. They can’t take our aspirations, and they can’t take away our community,” she said.