More than 10,000 so-called “Dreamers” live in Ohio. The undocumented young people were brought to the United States as children, and since 2012 they’ve been shielded from deportation under the Obama-era, “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” or DACA, program, which allowed the young people to temporarily remain in the country without a path to U.S. citizenship.
In September, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration’s decision to end the program:
"We are a people of compassion and we are a people of law. But there is nothing compassionate about the failure to enforce immigration laws. Enforcing the law saves lives, protects communities and taxpayers, and prevents human suffering. Failure to enforce the laws in the past has put our nation at risk of crime, violence and even terrorism. The compassionate thing is to end the lawlessness, enforce our laws, and, if Congress chooses to make changes to those laws, to do so through the process set forth by our Founders in a way that advances the interest of the nation."
Without action from Congress, several thousand DACA recipients living in the Miami Valley have just a few more months before they could be deported.
In this story, we meet one of these DACA recipients whose future in America is now uncertain.
Miami University graduate student Maria Sanchez has been following the debate over the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, but she says she tries not to let news and social media distract her from her studies.
"I said I'm not going to be on Instagram and I'm not going to be on Facebook, because things are going to happen anyway, we can't really control that," she says. "And I'll move forward.”
Sitting outside in a shady spot on campus, Sanchez tells the story of how she ended up in Ohio. She’s been in the Miami Valley since the age of 12, when her family moved to the United States, “directly from Mexico to Ohio," she says. "We've been in Ohio since then, since 2006."
Sanchez recalls that when she arrived, she couldn’t speak or understand English. But before long she was fluent. She excelled in high school and started thinking about college. It was around this time when she says she realized she was different from many of her fellow students. Teachers began excluding her from field trips and events.
“A few of us were told that we couldn't go because our parents didn't bring in our proper documents. that's when I realized that, oh. So, I will never be able to do things that I want to because the numbers they're looking for -- I don't have it. I mean there's no way I can get it."
She didn’t have a Social Security number. Up until that point, Sanchez says she had no concept of citizenship.
“I just moved with my parents. Going to one country or to another, I thought it was just buying a plane ticket -- that was my idea as a child. And then I came to realize that that isn't the case. It was much more complex than that,” she says.
After high school graduation in 2010, she wanted to go to college. But as an undocumented person, it was out of reach. She went to work instead. Two years later, she saw a way forward after president Barack Obama’s executive order created DACA.
Sanchez enrolled part-time at a community college and later transferred to OSU. But even with her legal status under DACA, she was ineligible for in-state tuition or financial assistance. She worked multiple jobs to pay for school.
“I didn't get any loans or I didn't get any financial aid at all," she says. "And I always think that I was able to graduate from college because my family were there to support me. And they couldn't always support me economically. But they were there to push me to to do my best.”
Sanchez is one of nearly 800,000 DACA recipients across the country who were brought by family members to the U.S. at age 16 or younger. And until now, these eligible DACA recipients have been able to renew their status every two years.
Each $495 application requires an extensive criminal background check, including fingerprints. Now, with the future of the program in doubt, many DACA recipients fear their personal information will be used to deport them.
It’s a legitimate concern, says Dayton immigration attorney Karen Denise Bradley. At her high-rise office building downtown, she says she’s advising her DACA clients to get their affairs in order and prepare for the worst: a knock on the door from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.
“ICE has their information and there's nothing that would stop them from picking them up and placing them in deportation proceedings," she says, "because that's what the White House wants to see happen.”
Bradley says she’s already seeing an uptick in detentions of undocumented immigrants across the state this year.
Many analysts have pointed out the Obama administration previously oversaw a significant increase in deportations across the country. The Department of Homeland Security reports apprehending 15 percent more undocumented immigrants in 2016 over the year before, "driven by a 50 percent increase in apprehensions of aliens from the Northern Triangle of Central America," while apprehensions of Mexican nationals remained largely unchanged.
Bradley is watching closely to see whether lawmakers will be able to agree on a replacement to give DACA recipients a chance at lawful citizenship in the United States, she says.
"Many of them see this country as the only place they actually do know. Many of them want to go to school, many of them join the military. They want to be part of this American dream," she says. "Why not assist them in doing just that?"
Nationally, more than 20,000 DACA recipients failed to renew their applications by the October 5 deadline, according to the Department of Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Enjoying a rare moment of quiet between classes at Miami University, Sanchez says she wants to continue with her education and find a job. She's first in her family to graduate from college.
She says she’s not sure what she’ll do if lawmakers don’t reinstate DACA.
"It's challenging to just think about what would I do. It's scary. Maybe it is, but I am not scared about losing my status again because I've been there before," she says. " And I refuse to not be able to accomplish what I want to do as a graduate student, and I hope that it will be worth it."
Columbus is always going to feel like home, she says.
"Home is where you build your memories, really.”
For now, the fate of Sanchez and thousands of other DACA recipients like her in Ohio is in the hands of Congress. Without a solution, they could be forced to leave the country beginning in March when the program ends.