When it comes to immigrants, Barack Obama's legacy will always be mixed. On the one hand, more than 2.5 million people were deported during his administration – more than any of his predecessors – enough for immigration advocates to dub him the "Deporter in Chief."
On the other, he advocated for comprehensive immigration reform, which died in Congress in 2013. And he also offered undocumented youth hope, in the form of an executive order: the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA. On June 15, 2012, from behind a podium in the White House Rose Garden, Obama announced that the new federal program would grant those brought to the U.S. illegally as children the right to live, study and work via a two-year renewable permit.
"These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they're friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag," he said. "They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper."
But to apply for the temporary residency grant, there were rules: applicants had to be under age 31 prior to the DACA announcement; they must have been younger than 16 prior to their arrival in the U.S.; they were required to be in school or have the equivalent of a high school diploma; and they couldn't have been previously convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor.
Since then, almost 800,000 of the nation's more than 1.1 million eligible immigrants were granted their permits – approximately 33,000 of whom reside in Florida, which boasts the country's fourth highest rate of recipients. Those protected by DACA came to be known as "Dreamers," named after failed legislation in Congress.
For those who'd lived in the nation's shadow, the new policy was a sort of renaissance. Everyday necessities, whether that be getting a driver's license or qualifying for student loans, were at last within reach.
It wouldn't last.
Enter the Trump administration.
On Sept. 5, a seemingly gleeful Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration's decision to end the DACA program, giving Congress until March 5 to figure out what to do with the Dreamers. The announcement was enough to unleash fear and anger throughout the country's young unauthorized population. While immigration hardliners were ecstatic, immigrant youths took to soapboxes of all kinds, from the steps in front of Orlando City Hall to the streets of Washington, D.C.
No matter how loud their voices have been, though, their futures have never been more uncertain.
We asked some local DACA recipients to tell us about their lives, how they feel when faced with anti-immigrant sentiment and what being American means to them.
There were as many as 20 of them that night in the Arizona desert, traveling in near silence. It was early December 2003, and though the days had been hot and dry, nights were bitter cold. Led by smugglers called coyotes, they carried gallons of water and what few belongings they could tote from one life to the next. It was almost the last leg of a two-day trek from America's southern border to Tucson, and 12-year-old Kevin Ortiz ached with exhaustion. He wanted to stop, but his mother pulled him along.
He still remembers how dark the desert was when the clouds would blot out the moon, and how it looked as if the sun were about to rise every time the moon would shine across the arid nothingness. He carries that memory, treasuring it in a way.
"I knew from the start that I didn't have the legal right to be in this country," Ortiz says. "My parents were always like, 'Kevin, no one needs to know that you are undocumented. Not even Mexicans, don't tell them.' ... We knew it was no one else's business and we tried to keep it that way for the longest time."
Ortiz, now a 26-year-old finance major and senior at the University of Central Florida, has lived in the United States for more than half his life. But like many undocumented immigrants, after graduating from Colonial High School in 2008, Ortiz was forced into obscurity as he worked in the restaurant and catering industry, saving money and holding out for the opportunities he hoped would come.
They did, temporarily. In February 2013, six months after the DACA program began accepting applications, Ortiz applied, receiving the two-year permit by late November of that same year. It was a springboard to success, Ortiz says. He was able to use more than $20,000 in savings toward an education on top of qualifying for in-state tuition. Soon after, he enrolled at Valencia College, where he would earn perfect marks before transferring to UCF on a scholarship through the Hispanic Heritage Scholarship Fund of Metro Orlando in fall 2015.
But this period of opportunity for undocumented youth wouldn't last – and Ortiz could see it coming as the 2016 presidential election's anti-immigration rhetoric blazed. Though he has continually renewed his DACA permit (most recently this past July), Ortiz went as far as to cancel an upcoming study abroad trip in France prior to the spring 2017 semester, due to concerns over his ability to re-enter the country. The decision forced him to change his minor from international business to Latin American studies, which he considers a pivotal moment for both his life and career.
"It changed my plans. It changed my dreams," Ortiz says. "I've always had this feeling that there's a glass ceiling for me, because there's a lot of things I can't do. And when [the Trump administration] tells me that I'm not welcome here, that they're trying to play political games with our status, trying to build a wall, using the Dreamers as bait, it's very disheartening."
He says he's played "the good immigrant game," but it wasn't enough.
Ortiz is set to work legally until July 2019. But the present situation still presents a logistical limbo: Following Ortiz's graduation in December, how will he explain to a potential employer that he's only able to work for less than two years? How will he qualify for student loans if he decides to pursue his master's degree? If DACA dies, how will it affect the life he's built? And, with a younger sister who's also a DACA recipient and an older brother who's not, how will it affect his loved ones?
"Will the U.S. government begin looking for me? Will they come to my house?" Ortiz asks. "Will they look for my family?"
He's also worried for his fellow DACA recipients at the university, where he heads the Dreamers at UCF group, and for whom he's acted as a lifeline for those worried about their futures. It's the inspiration behind his activism. It's why he wants to continue his higher education, and why he wants other young undocumented immigrants to do the same.
"My call for them is to never give up and to continue fighting for a higher education, because they will never take that away from you," Ortiz says. "They might take DACA away from you. They might take your parents away from you. They might take your family away from you. But they can never take away your education, so fight for it."
By the time Sandra Villa-Lomeli was midway through her junior year of high school, in early 2013, the realization sank in: As an American – one of the more than 1,400 teenagers roaming the halls of Belleview High School in Ocala – her future was much more uncertain than her peers.
"I saw everyone applying for college, applying for scholarships, and then that's when it hit me that I'm undocumented and I can't do the same thing," Villa-Lomeli says.
Her instinct was to let her mind gloss over – to give up. With a sigh, she recalls how there was a point where she even considered leaving high school. That was the first time Villa-Lomeli felt her future closing in around her.
There was a teacher who knew about her undocumented status, however: Darin Nine, the culinary arts instructor. He first learned about Villa-Lomeli's situation while giving a lesson on how to fill out job applications, when she asked him what to write down if she didn't have a social security number. She went on to tell him about how she had been in the U.S. since the age of 8, and how her parents originally came from Mexico on a work visa and never left.
Throughout her high school career, he would continue to be Villa-Lomeli's voice of reason, reaffirming that she belonged in the U.S. and that her education would matter in the end. He was also the one who introduced her to DACA: "This is your opportunity," Mr. Nine told her. "Apply for it then we can go from there."
Within three months, Villa-Lomeli received her permit. Much more, it was her lifeline to a future with potential.
Today, Villa-Lomeli is 21 years old and finishing up her second year at the College of Central Florida, where she studies human services. She hopes to transfer to UCF to finish her bachelor's degree next fall. She's a bartender and server at a local hotel. She pays for her own education out of pocket.
But what Villa-Lomeli has built for herself is in jeopardy if Congress doesn't reach a DACA solution by March 5.
"I'm motivated, I want to keep going with my education," Villa-Lomeli says. "And then I'm like: oh, wait. I'll be losing my DACA in a year. Like, what am I going to do?"
This wouldn't be the first time Villa-Lomeli had slipped back into the purgatory of being an unauthorized immigrant. While applying to renew her DACA permit last year, she sent her application materials in late, forcing her to live without a permit for a little over a month. That meant she lost her driver's license and had to quit her job as a server so she could work part-time under the table, for cash, sweating it out on a construction site while doing handiwork like framing homes and replacing siding. There were days when she would cry over stress, Villa-Lomeli says. She remembers thinking: Is this what her life will be like if the government decides to do away with DACA?
"And sure enough, like a year later," she says.
Undocumented immigrants are more than just pieces of paper, Villa-Lomeli says, more than a political football.
"I'm not just sitting down, doing nothing, like most people would assume. I want to be able to continue my education and be someone," she says. "When they say [DACA recipients] live off the government, that we're taking away Americans' chance to get a college education because they're giving it to us – that really upsets me."
She wonders what would become of her and her family if the government were to take advantage of the personal information she's provided for the program and deport them. Since Villa-Lomeli and her younger brothers, one of whom is also a Dreamer and the other a U.S. citizen, are the only legal residents in the immediate family, she worries about everyday things like who would be there to drive her parents from place to place when needed, and who could translate for them on a regular basis, as Villa-Lomeli has for most of their American lives.
They don't come from a rich background, her father sometimes tells her, and the only thing he'll leave them once he's gone is their education and the opportunities he did his best to provide. Thirteen years ago, before Villa-Lomeli could speak a word of English, that was why they moved to the U.S.
She still remembers that first morning as an American, when she woke up to the sun shining through the window blinds, beside her brother on a waterbed in Los Angeles, only a day after crossing by car from Tijuana. That morning, she asked a question that still resonates: "Is this really how it is in America?"
March 9, 2018.
That's the date that keeps Erika Rolle up at night. It eats at her, both the knowing and not knowing of what's to come. It's as if her livelihood has an expiration date. There aren't any loopholes; she's checked, asking advice of everyone from friends to activists to lawyers. They've all said the same thing, too: There's nothing that can be done, not now, maybe never.
Four days after the Trump administration's deadline, Rolle's DACA permit expires.
"For the past four years, it felt like the sun was shining on me because I didn't have to live in the shadows anymore," Rolle says. "I didn't have to explain to my friends why I was like 22 and I still couldn't drive, or why I didn't have a job or anything like that. I can finally go to school, drive myself to work, all those different things. Them taking that away, it's brought a lot of anxiety."
Rolle didn't even know she was born in the Bahamas until she was 7 years old, when she looked at her birth certificate for the first time after learning how to read. The 25-year-old has been in the U.S. for more than 24 years of her life. She didn't understand what it meant to be undocumented until her high school advisers started prepping Rolle and her classmates for college financial-aid applications.
Because she attended MAST Academy in Miami, a college prep school, it was mandatory to apply for college before graduation. So Rolle did, and was accepted into Miami-Dade College's honors program. Ecstatic, she spoke with a college adviser about qualifying for in-state tuition. That's where the hang-ups began.
"I had absolutely no way of proving my in-state, even though I've even been to daycare in Florida," Rolle says. "I was forced [to qualify for] out-of-state, and I had no way of paying out-of-state fees, and I didn't want to work without an actual permit."
She had no choice but to put college on hold.
In summer 2012, a silver lining appeared with the rollout of DACA. Though Rolle knew the program wouldn't be permanent, it was enough to instill hope. Rolle says she couldn't help but burst into tears when she heard the news.
By April 2014, her status as a Dreamer was official. Right away, she registered for classes at Palm Beach State College, even landing a scholarship that covered half the cost, and later transferred to UCF, where she's currently earning her bachelor's degree with a major in integrated business.
"It's kind of been downhill from there, right up until Trump said, 'Yeah, we're going to rescind [DACA] in March,'" Rolle says. "So now I feel like I'm going back to where I was when I graduated high school. I'm back in the limbo."
When she caught word of Sessions' announcement, it felt like a rock hit the bottom of her stomach. Why set the deadline in the middle of the school year? Why make such a rash decision? Why try to frame someone who's earning an education as a criminal or a burden to society? Why be so cruel?
Fortunately, Rolle's education won't be affected since she's attending school on a Dream.us scholarship. But that doesn't account for other costs like transportation, housing and food – and what she's supposed to tell her new boss about her work eligibility. In the meantime, to prep for the worst, Rolle says she's saving her money.
She's the first to admit that being deported back to the Bahamas wouldn't be the worst thing, seeing as to how she still has family there. As the only undocumented immigrant in her immediate family, Rolle says she's more worried about her fellow DACA recipients, including those she's met the Dreamers at UCF group.
"They're being sent back to somewhere they know nothing about," she says. "They don't know the culture. I don't even know my birth country's national anthem."
Rolle's voice slows down. "There, I would be an outsider."