They aren't children, they aren't perfect and — no matter what happens in Washington — they aren't going to cower in the shadows anymore.
Some of them don't even like the evocative label "Dreamers," finding it as stigmatizing as the "model minority" stereotype that raises the hackles of so many Asian Americans.
"There's this definition of a 'dreamer' that you are this perfect, good immigrant, but the reality is, everybody has a different story," said David Buenrostro, who was brought to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 4 and grew up in South El Monte. He also thinks it stigmatizes the parents who brought children to the U.S. for a better life.
Like most American teenagers, he had a few moments of bad judgment. "When I was 16," he told me, "I got a ticket for getting caught with spray paint." Big whup.
In 2013, after a detailed application process, Buenrostro was approved for DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program created in 2012 by President Obama's executive action after Congress failed to enact it.
Because of Obama's decision to act unilaterally, nearly 800,000 young people have been able to get Social Security numbers, which has made it possible for them to get jobs and health insurance, to open bank accounts, to get driver's licenses and financial aid.
As a DACA recipient, Buenrostro, 26, has a Social Security number and a work permit that he can renew every two years for about $500 a pop.
"I definitely do not have any intention of leaving," he said.
Last year, Buenrostro graduated with a degree in political science from UC Berkeley and now works as a deportation defense coordinator for the activist group, California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance. He is thinking about applying to law school. His mother works as a domestic, his father recycles scrap metal. Some years, he told me, he used his student loans to help his parents make ends meet.
On Tuesday, President Trump is expected to announce that he will fulfill one of his more mean-spirited campaign pledges and end the DACA program, possibly after a six-month grace period. Theoretically, the grace period will allow Congress to create a new program for the young people who have received deportation exemptions through DACA.
If Trump ends DACA, his decision may be welcomed by his base, of course, but it will be a huge step back for the country. Notwithstanding some of the more heated rhetoric, which has equated killing DACA with child abuse, even Republicans understand how damaging such a move would be — not just from a humanitarian point of view, but from a political one as well.
"I actually don't think he should do that," Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan said last week, joining a chorus of GOP lawmakers who support the goals of DACA. "I believe that this is something that Congress has to fix."
But Congress hasn't accomplished much of anything this year.
In the last few days, the fears of many "DACA kids," as they are often called, have been featured all over the news. But many are afraid to be publicly identified, and won't give their last names for fear of being singled out should DACA disappear for good. (If that were to happen, immigration authorities would have no trouble tracking them down, because that was the deal: In exchange for immunity from deportation, they handed over all their relevant personal data.)
But none of the four Dreamers I spoke to was afraid of being fully identified, and none expressed fear. Instead, they exuded determination.
These young adults were raised to be quiet, not make noise, stay under the radar. But that's not where they are anymore. They may not have a vote, but they can make a lot of noise, and they are damned if partisan political considerations will force them back into the shadows.
"We were always told to keep our head down and don't bring attention to ourselves," said Luis Serrano, 30, who arrived in the San Fernando Valley from Mexico when he was 8. Like Buenrostro, he had a few run-ins with police as a teenager, over school truancy and "other reckless teenage stuff," as he put it. But he's a grown man now, married for the past year to an American citizen, hoping to become one himself.
After he was approved for DACA in 2014, Serrano said, he was able to visit his grandparents in Mexico for the first time in 20 years. In the last 10 years, he has attended college on and off and works as a digital media strategist for the California Immigrant Youth Justice Alliance. His marriage could put him on a different immigration path if he chooses to pursue citizenship, but it is a long road and there are no guarantees.
"There is a sense that people have built their entire lives around DACA, and now some folks are afraid to lose that," Serrano said. "But some are like, 'Whatever. We will find ways to survive. This is nothing new to us.'"
Diana Escamilla was 2½ when her mother brought her to California from Mexico. In June, the 24-year-old graduated from Cal Poly Pomona and is working at her old high school in El Monte, helping students with college and financial aid applications.
"I'm not scared," she said. "I'm feeling hopeful overall because we still have a chance. We are at the point where we know how to organize and push for legislation. We are waking up people who were comfortable before."
On Monday, I also spoke with Manny Jimenez, 20, a Dreamer who arrived in Los Angeles from Nicaragua with his mother when he was a year old. I had trouble hearing him because he was marching in the Service Employees International Union's Labor Day rally downtown.
He told me he graduated from a Los Angeles charter high school, attends Santa Monica College and hopes to transfer to UCLA as a pre-med student. He is working the night shift as a dispatcher for a technology company. ("Not going to lie," he said, "the pay is great for a college student.")
When I asked him if he considered himself an American, he did not hesitate.
"I definitely am American," said Jimenez, who was approved for DACA five years ago. "All I know is the United States."
How do you tell someone like that he doesn't belong here?