Brenda Medrano-Frías arrived from Bolivia when she was 3. Cristina Velasquez left Venezuela at age 6, and Luis Gonzalez crossed over from Mexico at age 8. All three are now pursuing a bachelor’s degree at schools in the Washington region.
They also are among the hundreds of thousands of young immigrants whose future is in limbo as Congress debates offering them a reprieve after President Trump’s decision to end an Obama-era initiative that shielded certain undocumented immigrants from deportation if they arrived as children.
On Monday, the three students joined college presidents in a forum at Georgetown University that sought to publicize the plight of those who could soon lose protection from the program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA, as it is known, is a major issue on campuses nationwide.
“I am insanely worried,” Medrano-Frías said. “I’ve been here since I was 3. This is all that I know, as far back as I can remember. This is it.”
Now 19, Medrano-Frías is a second-year student at the Woodbridge campus of Northern Virginia Community College and serves as a student liaison with the college’s leadership. She hopes to transfer to Georgetown to study government and philosophy. Eventually, she wants to be an immigration lawyer.
“It’s a passion,” she said. “I’ve lived through it myself.” DACA protection enables her to have a work permit and qualify for in-state tuition.
Higher education leaders nationwide are mobilizing to advocate for students like these, known as "dreamers," as their fate hangs in the balance on Capitol Hill.
The Trump administration announced Sept. 5 that it would stop accepting applications for the program and stop issuing renewals for DACA beneficiaries, except for certain cases in which requests were filed by Oct. 5. The administration's action gave a six-month window for the Republican-led Congress to act before work permits would start to expire.
Trump has sent mixed signals, saying he wants to work with Democrats on a deal to help the dreamers but also announcing this month a set of hard-line immigration principles — including funding for a U.S.-Mexico border wall — that could jeopardize prospects for a bill. Republicans have focused on border security. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) said last week that Congress "cannot fix the DACA problem without fixing all of the issues that led to the underlying problem of illegal immigration in the first place."
But Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.) expressed optimism that a deal will be settled by year’s end. “It is likely that Congress will respond,” he said. “I don’t believe that Democrats are going to cooperate with Republicans on an end-of-year bill that does not include DACA.”
Cardin met with a small group of DACA beneficiaries Monday at the University of Maryland at College Park. He said he was struck by their talent and drive “to help this country, in health care, in business, in economics.”
At the White House on Monday, Trump reiterated in a news conference that he expects Congress “should be able to do something” for the dreamers, while adding: “We do want the wall.”
Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia urged Congress to give the dreamers a path to citizenship. “Each of them belongs here,” DeGioia said in the gathering on campus at Copley Hall. “Their membership in our community is not only welcome but vital.”
DeGioia estimated that 50 to 60 of the 18,500 students at the Jesuit university are DACA beneficiaries. One is Luis Gonzalez, 20, a junior double-majoring in American studies and government who grew up undocumented in Orange County, Calif. He is active in a campus group called UndocuHoyas, a reference to the school’s mascot.
Gonzalez told the forum that DACA has been essential for his peace of mind as a student, giving him “the confidence and security I had not had before.”
With DeGioia and Gonzalez on Monday were the presidents of George Mason University, Northern Virginia Community College, and Montgomery College. Together, those three public schools have more than 1,600 DACA students.
“I have a personal passion for this,” George Mason President Ángel Cabrera said. “We have to figure out a solution.”
That’s what Cristina Velasquez craves. A senior in Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service, the 23-year-old plans to graduate in December with a bachelor’s degree in international politics. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, she flew with her mother to Madison, Wis., in 2000 and eventually settled in the Miami area.
She said she was unaware of her problematic immigration status until she was blocked as a teenager from obtaining a driver’s license. She graduated from high school in 2012, with stellar grades but unsure how she would afford college.
“We were living in the shadows,” she recalled.
A few days after Velasquez’s graduation, President Barack Obama announced DACA. Velasquez said she took a gap year, started at Miami Dade College and later transferred to Georgetown. Along the way, she got DACA protection. It will expire in 2019.
“The fact that my life is in the hands of Congress is difficult,” she said.
She urged lawmakers: “Act now.”
David Nakamura contributed to this report.