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Young DACA immigrants grapple with what's next as hope of federal fix dwindles

Zuleyma Barajas, 27, right, and her mother, Maria Eugenia Galvan, face an uncertain future as the clock ticks down on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Barajas and her younger sister have DACA work permits and deportation protection that will eventually expire unless Congress acts.
Zuleyma Barajas, 27, right, and her mother, Maria Eugenia Galvan, face an uncertain future as the clock ticks down on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Barajas and her younger sister have DACA work permits and deportation protection that will eventually expire unless Congress acts.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC

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As Congress begins wrapping up its work for the year and hope fades for action to resolve the status of young, unauthorized immigrants, the possibility is dawning for many of them that they could face deportation.

Since 2012, DACA has provided roughly 800,000 young immigrants, who arrived as children in the U.S., with temporary protection from deportation and work permits. These were renewable every two years.

In September, the Trump administration rescinded the program and called on Congress to find a solution to the young immigrants' status. But there is still no legislative compromise in sight.

DACA recipients' permits will begin to expire in March, depending on when the young immigrants last received renewals of their status.

As the year draws to an end, these young immigrants are at different stages of accepting what could happen next if Congress does not act.

Twenty-seven-year-old Zuleyma Barajas, visiting her mother in Van Nuys one recent morning, cast her eyes to a couple of posters in the apartment window. One features brown and black faces with the words, “We Are Here to Stay.”

“For me, these represent everything we are fighting for," said Barajas, who arrived in the U.S. with her family at age 10. Her mom, Maria Eugenia Galvan, agrees they need to stay strong.

"I want to show the people don't be afraid, stay together, stay as a family," Galvan said.

Both women want federal legislation that would would allow Barajas and her 25-year-old younger sister to keep their deportation protection and work permits under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA.

For Barajas and her sister, their status expires a year from now.

At first, when she talks about the future, Barajas seems fired up and hopeful.

“I’m not planning on what I’m going to do when that time comes, that I’m left without anything," she said. "I’m focused on doing what we need to do now, to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

She talked about a recent trip to Washington, D.C., where she and other young immigrants lobbied Congress members for what they call a “clean Dream Act,” a bill that would protect them, without targeting others, especially their parents, for immigration enforcement.

Barajas is also working on her career as a freelance photographer, something she decided to focus on after being laid off last year from a bank job. She would not need a work permit if she freelances.

Her mother fully supports her daughter's efforts. Galvan is an unauthorized immigrant, too, and like Barajas has been involved in efforts to pass a bill that would benefit the young immigrants.

But after talking for a while, the harsh reality of their situation takes hold, and Galvan breaks down.

“We’ve talked about this, my husband and me," she said through tears in Spanish. "We came here for them. And if they give them permits, and [if] they say they will criminalize us – we will go."

Galvan said she and her husband have already spoken with others in a similar predicament. They've talked of possibly investing together in a house near the U.S.-Mexico border, where if they do have to leave, they could at least be relatively close to their children.

"We've talked about going to Rosarito, or Tijuana so they can come see us on the weekends," said Galvan, a native of Mexico City. "We just want for them to be okay." 

As her mother spoke of leaving, Barajas was visibly shaken.

"It's very hard to hear that," she said. "I hate to say this, because it is the thing we are fighting for, something permanent. But if something came, and it was permanent — and it was at the cost of not being with my parents — I wouldn't stay."

Their conversation gets at the question that many DACA recipients and their families are asking: what do we do now?

TIME RUNNING OUT

Several bills are pending in Congress that would address the DACA recipients' status, but Congress is far from acting on them. 

The possibility of a legislative deal contracted last month, after the Trump administration released a list of requirements for any compromise. It included stricter enforcement, money for a border wall, and federal funding cuts for so-called "sanctuary" cities, all opposed by Democrats.

More recently, Trump and Senate Republican leaders agreed that legislation to benefit young immigrants would not be attached to a broader federal spending bill, and that further reduced the chances of a resolution by year's end.

Those who are politically active say no matter how impossible, they’ll keep pushing for a bill to keep the young immigrants in the country legally.

Nancy Meza is one of them. Last month, she was among several young people who blocked a Westside intersection to protest the end of DACA. She and a handful of protesters were cited.

"We've been here before; this is basically where we were in 2010," Meza said. "The narrative that we see now is that DACA was something that was given, when the reality is that DACA was something that was fought for tooth and nail."

Years ago, Meza was among the college students who rallied in caps and gowns to pressure the Obama administration for a solution to their status. Then as now, their goal was legislation that would give them a path to legal residency. That didn't happen, but the pressure from the young activists ultimately helped lead to DACA, she said. 

Meza, now 30, said she’s not going anywhere.

“I made a commitment in 2010 to say that I was undocumented and unafraid, and for me, although Trump is in office, I’m not going to go back into the shadows," she said.

But she’s also being practical. Her first job after DACA was working in public relations for an affordable housing developer. Lately, she’s been polishing her freelance portfolio so that she can work self-employed jobs within the law once her DACA permit expires.

“Knowing that DACA is not going to be around for long, for me, it was really important to focus on building my own business, being able to continue doing marketing and communications on my own ...," Meza said.

Jungwoo Kim says he’s not sure what he’ll do for a living when his DACA permit expires in a little over a year and a half. Kim works for a community nonprofit in Koreatown. He’s 33 now, and the idea of returning to under-the table jobs seems daunting.

So far, he prefers to stay optimistic. He's become increasingly active in pushing for a Dream Act bill. 

“I have a really good feeling that we can really pass it this year. We have to pass it before December," he said, then laughed. "Because all I want for Christmas is the Dream Act!"

There is no point in hiding, he said. Because he submitted a DACA application and subsequent renewals, the government already has his information, including his home address, and this worries him. “I think they are going to start to … deport us," Kim said quietly.

He’s not the only one who worries. One young woman who had spoken with KPCC in the past declined an interview for this story.

She texted: “I hope you understand.”