For DACA recipients, a Senate vote and a Texas judge stand between citizenship and deportation

Correction & clarification: An earlier version of this story overestimated the number of so-called Dreamers who could be helped by the American Dream and Promise Act. There are are more than 3 million Dreamers among 11 million undocumented Americans.

Jose Loyo has a university degree in robotics. He leverages those advanced engineering skills daily to test engines for Cummins, a $40 billion multinational corporation that provides power sources for companies worldwide.

Loyo, 23, is proud of his job, proud of his wife and proud of his family-focused midwestern life in Columbus, Indiana.

And yet, because he was brought to the United States from Mexico as a 3-year-old, he is not a citizen and is concerned that he and his wife, Yamileth Martinez, 23, who also arrived in the United States as a child from Mexico, could be deported to a country they know only in stories.

“This place is my life, we want to stay where we grew up and keep our dreams,” Loyo said. “We don’t know much about Mexico. Being told to go back, I can’t imagine that.”

Jose Loyo is a robotics engineer at Cummins in Indiana, but because he came to the United States at age 3 from Mexico, citizenship still eludes him and he fears he and his wife may be deported if laws don't change.

But Loyo and Martinez do have to ponder that possibility. The program that keeps them in the United States is in jeopardy.

Ten years after former President Barack Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Congress is once again debating legislation that would allow immigrants brought here as children to become U.S. citizens. Meanwhile, a Texas judge is poised to rule on the constitutionality of the DACA program, creating a potentially urgent deadline for the nation to decide whether hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who have lived here for most of their lives will finally have security in their chosen home or be deported to countries they haven't seen in many years.

Salvation could come in the form of the new American Dream and Promise Act, which reflects President Joe Biden's campaign pledges to support "Dreamers." In March, the House passed the act, one step in the president's plan to provide citizenship for an estimated 3.6 million Dreamers, or about a third of the nation's 11 million undocumented residents.

Those residents range from farmworkers to "Dreamers" such as Loyo and Martinez, both recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, , which gives about 700,000 people who came to the United States as children the ability to live and work here. DACA status has to be renewed every two years and does not offer a path to citizenship.

DACA has been a political football since it was created by Obama in 2012. The program was canceled by former President Donald Trump in 2017 and then reinstated by the Supreme Court last summer.

The program is once again in peril after Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton and eight other states sued, arguing that DACA recipients placed a financial burden on health care, education and law enforcement. U.S. District Court Judge Andrew Hanen, the judge in the case, has said DACA likely violated federal immigration law.

In the meantime, life remains in limbo for hundreds of thousands of young people in the prime of their lives, many working at top companies and others the parents of U.S. citizens. DACA recipients interviewed by USA TODAY said they are emotionally anguished at the thought of leaving the only country they have ever known.

"The way the previous administration treated us was inhumane and led me to depression, anxiety attacks and mental health issues at the thought that suddenly I'd be told to go back to Ecuador," said Dayann Pazmino, 24, of Austin, Texas. "So often I do feel like a noncitizen. Even now, I'm applying to graduate school and I'm actually considered a foreign student, and I've been here since I was 4."

Dayann Pazmino, right, selling some of her silkscreened T-shirts. Pazmino was born in Ecuador and came to the United States as a child. She fears that her ability to stay in the U.S. is now in jeopardy unless senators pass a new act giving DACA recipients like her a path to citizenship.

Pazmino was born in Quito, Ecuador, and came to New York with her mother and two siblings to join her father, who had taken jobs as a taxi and ambulance driver. The family settled in Queens, and her mother soon found work in a factory and as a nanny.

Until she was around 16, Pazmino said she did not feel much different from her New York friends. “But I did wonder why we would take a bus when visiting Florida, or why we never flew to see relatives in Ecuador,” she said. “Something seemed different.”

Good grades helped secure a scholarship to nearby Queens College from, an organization that helps DACA recipients. She then embraced an exchange program with the University of Texas at Austin and decided to stay after realizing that she could help other immigrants who were in dire need of guidance.

“Being in Texas opened my eyes to what it can be like to be a noncitizen in the U.S.,” said Pazmino, who describes herself as a queer nonbinary artist, musician and community organizer. “Growing up in New York, I knew about immigration raids, but it wasn’t at the scale and fear level as it is for some of those in Texas, where the slightest thing can get you deported.”

Immigration experts say there is reason DACA recipients should be concerned given that many expect Republican lawmakers to leverage the growing crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, where thousands of hopeful young immigrants are being detained, to extract border security concessions in exchange for supporting the Promise Act. Activists said the two issues should not be linked.

Bruna Bouhid-Sollod - who came to the United States as a child from Brazil and is communications director for United We Dream, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group - said DACA recipients never saw the program as a permanent solution. Many are frustrated a having to spend time and money to reapply every two years. She said senators “have a moral imperative to approve the Act so we can move on with our lives and have permanency in this country.”

Conservative groups argue it is impossible to decouple the needs of DACA recipients from the broader immigration debate and charge that Democrats are angling to create a system that will lead to a flood of immigrants that the nation cannot welcome.

“They want a rolling amnesty program, we want solutions that are pro-reality,” said Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based group that is against open immigration policies. Stein said the reform group would support a “balanced proposal that limits extended family claims, brings an end-date for eligibility and sends some people home. But the Democrats are into this idea that no one has to go home, ever.”

DACA recipients want 'chance' to dream

When Andrea Anaya, 19, sees footage of immigrant children at the southern border, she empathizes. "I feel they should have a chance to fulfill their dreams," she said.

Anaya came to the United States at age 5 from El Salvador, following a single mother who left law school to give her daughter a chance at a better life.

"She took jobs as a domestic, taking care of kids just so I could have more opportunities," said Anaya, who grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, and is a freshman and on scholarship at Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia. She hopes to go to law school, realizing the dream her mother had to set aside.

Growing up in Silver Spring, Anaya remembers feeling no different from her friends who were citizens. "I always felt American, celebrating holidays, speaking English fluently," she said. "I honestly never noticed any difference between us until I got to high school."

Andrea Anaya, 19, was born in El Salvador and came to the United States at age 5. She is currently a student near her hometown of Silver Spring, Md., and has just applied for DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program that temporarily grants such young immigrants some legal status. She is concerned that without a path to full citizenship she and other DACA recipients will be deported to countries they do not know.

That's when normal teen rites of passage became insurmountable hurdles because of her immigration status. A driver's license, a job, a trip to visit relatives in El Salvador – all impossible.

"I suddenly realized I was undocumented and had no resources at my disposal," she said. "The concept of being American is interesting. I feel it in every way. And yet I'm not it, not yet. It's like I'm waiting for the storm to clear."

Anaya has youth and optimism on her side. She remains hopeful that lawmakers will see that the fabric of American life is woven with the dreams of people like her.

“Everyone was an immigrant at one point, so it feels odd to hear some people claiming some sort of ownership of a land that they didn’t own in the first place,” she said. “Sure, not everyone who comes here has the best intentions, but most people do come with big hopes, and it benefits us all when they come in and contribute to what American is all about.”

Some immigration experts said that given the United States often grants work permits to a range of foreign-born experts through H1-B and other visas, DACA recipients should benefit from similar legal protections.

“This country has special provisions for all sorts of people to make a home here, therefore to say that there’s an issue at the border so we can’t help people who have been here 20 or 30 years just doesn’t work,” said Michael Kagan, director of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas Immigration Clinic and author of “The Battle to Stay in America: Immigration’s Hidden Front Line.”

Kagan called the pending Texas ruling a “looming threat” to DACA, one that if realized will “see people deported and livelihoods taken away. I’m sure for these people it must seem like a really bad zombie movie, where the problems just keep coming back.”

'The question is, where is home?'

During the Trump years, DACA recipient Hans Miguel Esguerra, 29, of San Francisco concluded he “was doomed, I felt I needed to either get married or find some other way to work outside the U.S. just so as not have this day-to-day fear overtake me.”

Each time DACA was subject to judicial review over the past years, Esguerra was anxious, even taking a mental health day last summer from his job guiding social responsibility practices at a global professional services firm when the Supreme Court ruled.

Esguerra came to the San Francisco area when he was 7 from the Philippines, along with his parents and three siblings. His father was a program analyst working for well-known U.S. companies, but was unable to get sponsorship for a green card because of the size of his family, Esguerra said.

Growing up, Esguerra played basketball and ran a car detailing business to pay for community college, eventually transferring to the University of California, Santa Barbara, and later getting his license as a certified public accountant.

Hans Miguel Esguerra, 29, is shown here during a volunteer tutoring session at the Boys and Girls Club of San Francisco. Esquerra emigrated at age 7 from the Philippines along with his large family and is still hoping to become a United States citizen and continue with his career at a global professional services firm.

Esguerra’s American journey has been kept afloat by DACA, but he remains concerned that its uncertain status could yet derail his life.

While he has a U.S. citizen as a girlfriend, he said he “respects marriage too much to marry for papers.” Instead, he tries “not to be depressed with a system designed to keep you down. I ask only that people put themselves in our shoes and understand the simple rights we are fighting for."

Dreamer feels like a 'political pawn'

Cummins test engineer Loyo said he can’t quite find the words to describe what it means “to live out the American dream, but it means a lot.” That’s why he said it is “heartbreaking that an immigration issue like ours is just used as a political pawn.”

Loyo was born in Xalapa, just east of Mexico City, in 1998. His father left first, when Loyo was a few months old and found work through friends in agriculture in Indiana. When Loyo was 1, his mother joined his father, finding cleaning work in a factory.

Loyo, who stayed back with relatives, eventually came over with a friend who was a U.S. citizen when he was 3, and a few years later the family welcomed another boy – so far, the only American citizen in the family. But growing up, Loyo felt so American that he was unaware of DACA until his mother alerted him to it.

Jose Loyo and his wife Yamileth Martinez both came to the United States from Mexico as small children; they have burgeoning careers in Indiana, where they grew up, but are concerned they and others like them could be deported if laws aren't implemented to create a path for citizenship for DACA recipients.

“As my friends were getting to an age where they wanted to drive and work and had college dreams, I couldn’t have any of that if it weren’t for DACA, so I owe my mother a lot,” he said.

And yet, uncertainties remain as the program, as well as the American Dream and Promise Act, continue to be subject to a political tug-of-war.

Loyo has wondered about the possibility of working in Mexico or another country where Cummins has operations, but that would leave his reentry into the United States in question. For Loyo, his legal status aside, not being able to come back to Indiana means not being able to go back home.

“It’s scary because starting from scratch is intimidating,” he said. “We like it here. We have family here. All we know is here. We prefer to stay in Columbus, Indiana, where we are from.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Immigration reform: Dreamers, DACA recipients hope to stay in US