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?"