(NEW YORK) — For the past year, Ms. Luna’s middle school classroom lessons have taken a personal turn because for some of her students, old fears have been renewed — fears that they or their parents could be deported.
“I want to provide a safe space for my kids, and for them to know that their voices are important,” Luna said. “We tell our kids constantly, ‘If you work hard, you can get anywhere in life,’ however, with having a status as being undocumented proves to be a challenge.”
It’s a challenge Luna, who asked us to keep her name private, knows all too well. She too is undocumented.
She’s been protected for the past five years under President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA), a 2012 executive order that grants young immigrants temporary permission to stay and work in the United States and it currently protects nearly 800,000 so-called “dreamers.”
But now several state attorneys general, led by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, are threatening to sue the Trump administration to end it, arguing that the existing policy is unlawful, and forcing President Donald Trump to make a decision before next Tuesday.
The fate of many of DACA recipients, now caught in the political crossfire.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, then-candidate Trump vowed to reverse the policy.
But since taking office, Trump has been mulling over the future of the DACA program, telling ABC News during an interview in January, “They shouldn’t be very worried if they are here illegally, they shouldn’t be very worried. We do have a big heart. We’re going to take care of everybody.”
Vice President Mike Pence told ABC News Chief White House Correspondent Jon Karl Thursday that the president still stands by that statement.
“President Trump has said all along that he’s giving very careful consideration to that issue and that when he makes his decision, he’ll make it with, as he likes to say, ‘big heart,’” Pence said.
Yet multiple sources tell ABC News that the president is leaning toward ending the program. A decision expected any day now.
Luna said she’s afraid of what could happen.
“Even though I have DACA, I’m afraid for the community,” she said.
“People can take everything away from you, and I think — that’s the way that I thought about it when I was growing up. They can take everything away from you. They can’t take what you have in here,” she said, referring to her mind.
Luna said she was 10 years old when she first arrived in New York from Peru on a tourist visa. Afraid and ashamed, she kept her undocumented status a secret.
“You grow up hearing all these messages about what it means to be undocumented and the messages are not positive,” she said.
Luna went on to college — a goal that became a family endeavor. She studied while her parents took cleaning jobs.
“I mean my parents took on three jobs to get me through college and … we paid for college, cash,” she said. “I didn’t get help from the government.”
Then in 2012, during her junior year of college, DACA was introduced.
“That moment when I received it I was finally able to do something with my degree,” she said.
Luna’s dream of becoming a teacher came true when she joined Teach for America in 2014.
“It was one of the happiest moments,” she said. “It wasn’t until I became a teacher that I realized the power of our stories and how important it is for people to know who I am.”
Public outcry in support of professionals like Luna has grown louder and there have been marches across the country to defend DACA. This week, 66 mayors from 29 states issued a call to Trump to keep the program.
The Department of Homeland Security said it is still processing several hundred DACA applications a day, many of which are renewals, like that of Oswaldo, a high school senior, who asked ABC News not use his full name.
He and his grandfather sought the help of attorney Cesar Vargas to fight to keep Oswaldo in the country.
Over the past year, Vargas has taken on dozens of pro-bono cases. He said it’s an opportunity for him to provide both legal and moral support to his clients.
“It is personal because I am undocumented,” he said. “I am protected under DACA, and if DACA is taken away, I can lose my driver’s license, I could lose my work authorization and I could possibly lose my law license.”
Vargas is the first openly undocumented attorney in the state of New York, where he also lives.
“If I were to be deported I would turn right back because this is my home and no one is going to take me away from my home,” he said.
He was 5 years old when he was brought to the U.S. by his mother. Together they crossed the U.S.-Mexico border into this country illegally. He said the feeling of uncertainty has been looming over him long before Trump took office.
“What we’re seeing now … is a deportation force that President Obama pretty much fueled up and handed the keys to President Donald Trump,” Vargas said, referring to the more than 2.5 million people who were deported under the Obama administration — more deportations than any other president in U.S. history.
Now that DACA hangs in the balance, Vargas and many other advocates are advising hopefuls to think twice before applying, especially, he said, if they have siblings who are also undocumented.
“Especially if they have never applied, if that’s their first time, the immigration agencies will now have their information,” Vargas said. “At this point, we don’t know what immigration will do with any type of information that applicants are going to submit.”
But Luna cautions against retreating into the shadows, and said instead, it is crucial for them to raise voices now more than ever. It’s an idea she has her students practice in the form of writing letters to Trump. Some write about women’s rights, other write about their fear of terrorist attacks or the future of climate change or growing up in poverty. Some write about their fears of their family being deported.
“It pains me to say this but I mean I have no respect for him [President Trump] and for what he’s doing,” she said. “I know he’s in a position of power and I know that I would have to be able to persuade him, but why do I have to persuade him on my humanity.”
Luna said she is now saving money just in case she’s forced to leave the job and the country she loves.
“There still has to be a sense of hope,” she said. “I’m extremely hopeful that the future will be better, and that’s what I try to tell my kids.”
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