Sandra Lopez was brought to the United States from Mexico as a 12-year-old. Today Lopez is 27, and her biggest advances and setbacks have mirrored the vagaries of American immigration policy in recent years.
She graduated from Cabrillo High School in Long Beach in 2008 with a 4.0 average and was accepted to the University of California, Santa Barbara. But because she was undocumented, she didn’t qualify for financial aid. She went to work as a waitress at a seafood restaurant and paid her way through Cal State Long Beach, a more affordable school.
Lopez is one of the L.A. Metro area's estimated 100,000 "dreamers," the nickname given to the young beneficiaries of the Obama-era program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. When the policy took effect in 2012, dreamers for the first time in their lives were able to attend school lawfully, work lawfully, purchase homes and live in the United States without the constant threat of deportation.
With the benefits of DACA, Lopez was able to finish school and go to work as a field deputy for Long Beach City Councilman Roberto Uranga. She is enrolled in a master’s program in public administration at Cal State Long Beach.
When Donald Trump campaigned for president, he vowed to "immediately" eliminate DACA. As president, he softened his stance, giving assurances that DACA recipients should “rest easy.”
“We are not after the dreamers, we are after the criminals,” Trump told the AP in April.
Now Trump reportedly is weighing whether to phase out the program — or repeal it altogether — a decision that could have devastating consequences for the lives of the estimated nearly 800,000 dreamers in the United States.
“I’m just here on the roller coaster, like one day he’s going to wake up and cancel DACA,” Lopez says. “It’s an everyday thing where I have to check and see if he’s said anything and if I can continue my life.”
A group of 10 majority-Republican states, led by Texas attorney general Ken Paxton, issued an ultimatum in July threatening to sue to repeal DACA if Trump doesn't rescind the program.
There are at least 100,000 DACA recipients in the Greater Los Angeles area — the highest concentration of them in the country — according to the ACLU of Southern California. If Trump takes action in the coming days, legal advocates say they foresee three main scenarios for how the process may unfold.
The most catastrophic scenario would be if Trump were to repeal the program outright, immediately terminating the program’s work authorization and its protection from deportation.
“People who have jobs, they’d have no ability to prepare for a transition out of the jobs if need be, no way to protect themselves or their family members,” says the ACLU's Sameer Ahmed. "They’d have no time to figure out next steps for home payments or jobs.”
A second possible scenario would be that the Trump administration phases out the program by ceasing to process renewals. DACA recipients are required to renew their deferral every two years. By ending the renewal process, the administration would spread out the damage over a longer period of time, giving people some time to prepare.
Ninety-one percent of DACA recipients have found gainful employment, according to a study by the Center for American Progress and FWD.us. The study estimates that if DACA renewals were suspended it could result in job losses for more than 30,000 people per month.
Under a third scenario, Trump could try to end DACA by default by not defending the program from a potential lawsuit. The Republican-led states threatening to sue the administration would do so in the court of U.S. District Judge Andrew S. Hanen, who has developed a reputation as an outspoken judicial critic of the Obama administration's immigration policies.
"It would be a game plan to blame the courts for killing DACA and [Trump] keeping himself looking like he really cares and it’s not his fault and that the courts have to make the decision," says Armando Vazquez-Ramos, director of the California-Mexico Studies Center of Cal State Long Beach, a nonprofit that organizes study-abroad programs that allow dreamers to travel to Mexico.
Luis Perez, director of legal services for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles, or CHIRLA, says it would take time for a judge to potentially end the program. Additionally, Perez estimates that around 80,000 applications for DACA are pending with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. There is an application fee of $495 that would have to be returned to applicants individually, Perez says. “I believe it will be a logistical nightmare for USCIS to refund that money.”
There's also the question of what the Trump administration could do with the personal information that dreamers had to submit to the federal government as part of the DACA application — information about where they work, go to school and live, as well as who their parents are. The Obama administration had promised that such information would not be shared between federal agencies unless a dreamer posed a credible threat to national security.
According to Perez, that promise is backed up by the federal Privacy Act, which restricts the dissemination of personal information from records maintained by federal agencies.
“As much as we want to trust USCIS will keep its promise and abide by the Privacy Act, we’re not in a position to trust this administration based on how they’ve disregarded the law,” Perez says.
Ahmed of the ACLU says the issue of the government using personal data to remove dreamers from the country is “an extreme concern.”
“I don’t believe legally they should be allowed to use any of that information in removal proceedings,” Ahmed says. “If it comes to that, our organization will be fighting really hard against the government using information from DACA in removal proceedings.”
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DACA eligibility extends to applicants who have no more than two misdemeanors from a list of specific crimes.
"Under this administration, one misdemeanor may be enough to consider you a criminal and go after you," Ahmed says. "So that’s a big fear, people with one misdemeanor under DACA may be a priority for removal."
In what has become a familiar refrain, the president in the White House and his immigration priorities have become the biggest factors in Sandra Lopez's future.
“It’s not that my life is in his hands but my job is, and without a job i’m not able to pay for school," she says. "How am I going to pay my rent? I’ll have to look for work under the table and get paid minimum wage. And I’m willing to do it all over again if necessary because I’ve done it before."