They are doctors and pharmacists, business owners and students who were brought to the United States as children, unaware that they had entered illegally or on visas that later expired. Without legal status, their hopes for the future were dim.
Seven years ago, their lives dramatically changed when the Obama administration announced it would defer deportation and allow work permits for young people who met certain residency, educational and background requirements under a policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
Now their future hangs in the balance as the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments Tuesday to decide whether to unravel that program, which temporarily protects some 700,000 of these immigrant young people, known as “Dreamers.”
California is home to the largest number of DACA recipients and has led the legal challenge to the Trump administration’s efforts since 2017 to wind down the program. The University of California, under the guidance of President Janet Napolitano — who crafted the DACA policy as U.S. Homeland Security secretary — is a lead plaintiff along with the state and other California entities and individuals.
Some opponents of DACA point to federal statistics showing that 7.8% of those approved for the protected status through February 2018 had arrest records — mostly for offenses related to driving or immigration.
Yet DACA recipients have pursued degrees at top universities, created jobs as entrepreneurs, launched nonprofits, joined politics, even appeared in Hollywood movies.
Here are some of their stories.
He graduated from UC Berkeley with honors, earned a master’s degree from Harvard in public health and a doctor of medicine from UC San Francisco. His three-year residency began just months ago. But Jirayut “New” Latthivongskorn’s pathway to achieving his medical license hinges on whether he can continue receiving work authorization in the United States.
He said he works to strike a balance in his life between treating patients 12 hours a day and advocating for immigrants like himself. And he doesn’t look far into the future.
“You take it one step at a time,” he said. “You look at the next chapter and then you leave room for some hope,” said Latthivongskorn, 29. In 2017 he joined five other DACA recipients in California who sued the Trump administration.
Twenty years ago, his parents left Thailand for Northern California with their three children after a financial crash and overstayed their tourist visa.
In high school he became his mother’s medical coordinator when she was diagnosed with ovarian tumors, helping her navigate a confusing healthcare system in a language she didn’t speak. In college he advocated for broader financial aid for students in the U.S. illegally and started an organization to help them access the medical field.
“Through being undocumented I’ve also found meaning and value ... which ends up driving a lot of what I do and my motivation,” he said.
Gurkaran Singh is still in college, but he runs a successful real estate business. In fact, the 23-year-old is about to hire at least four real estate agents and an assistant — all U.S. citizens.
“It’s funny. I don’t have legal status and I’m going to hire U.S. citizens,” he said.
DACA was pivotal to Singh’s success. Simply being able to obtain a driver’s license, even though he doesn’t have citizenship, allowed him to drive legally -- essential for his job.
DACA came at a perfect time for Singh. He was a senior in high school and ready to enter the working world. Without DACA he would not have been able to apply for a real estate license right away because, until 2016, California law didn’t allow immigrants without legal status to apply for professional licenses. DACA also made it easier for him to expand his business and apply for bank loans and credit cards.
Singh was 5 years old when he flew with his mother from India to the United States. He said he still doesn’t know whether he came on a tourist visa or clandestinely. He just knows that he doesn’t have legal status and currently has no way to obtain it.
His father is a U.S. citizen, but Singh said he can’t sponsor him because of a past mishap in filing the paperwork.
Singh now is at the mercy of the Trump administration and the courts.
“I have no control over what is going to happen,” he said. “I’m paying taxes. I’m doing everything a U.S. citizen would.”
Dellara Gorjian is a UCLA law student who missed out on a window to legalize her status by just two weeks.
The 25-year-old Canadian was brought to California legally at age 5 but overstayed her tourist visa. Her parents had immigrated to Canada after fleeing Iran’s theocratic regime. Her father, a general contractor, and mother, a Realtor, became U.S. citizens four years ago by virtue of another daughter, who had married a citizen.
The parents had planned to sponsor Gorjian, who had received DACA status in 2012 but was aiming for the more secure green card. Their citizenship, however, came too late — two weeks after Gorjian had turned 21 and aged out of eligibility for that path to legalization.
Now DACA is the only thing standing between her and upheaval as she contemplates returning to a country she no longer knows. If DACA is rescinded, Gorjian will have to return to Canada for three to 10 years before she is eligible for legal entry to the United States.
“We begged [immigration officials], telling them I was a highly successful student with no criminal record, but they didn’t budge,” Gorjian said.
She feels so strongly about DACA’s importance that she overcame her initial fears about backlash and told her story in a sworn declaration as part of the California case.
“I would rather be an active participant in creating change than watch from the sidelines,” she said.
For the first few years of her adult life, Karla Estrada hustled to put herself through school.
The 26-year-old, who grew up in Chino, worked multiple odd jobs at low pay because she was in the country illegally. On top of that, she was ineligible for state and most institutional financial aid to attend Mt. San Antonio College, east of Los Angeles.
DACA changed all that. She got a Social Security number and landed a job as a hostess at a Red Lobster seafood restaurant, where she earned a regular paycheck. “It was life-changing.”
Estrada was brought illegally to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 5.
After receiving DACA status, she transferred to UCLA and graduated with a degree in anthropology. She is now a Los Angeles-based paralegal for immigration cases.
“I knew very well that if I made a minor mistake, my protected status would get stripped away,” she said. “I knew it would not protect my family.”
She was right.
In 2017, five years after she enrolled in DACA, immigration officials deported Estrada’s brother to Mexico. A few months later, her mother and father moved back to Mexico after living in the U.S. for more than 20 years to help care for Estrada’s brother, who had mental health issues.
Now DACA, the only thing that protects Estrada from deportation, is in jeopardy. The program, she said, has provided a “mirage of security” that led to complacency within the immigrant rights movement.
“I just beg people not to forget the actual goal is to get permanent residency and eventually citizenship,” she said.
Vladimir Mendoza knows that his future is at the mercy of politicians.
“I realize I got DACA because of a politician and it can be taken away by another politician,” he said.
The 26-year-old product designer said that his ability to work legally because of the DACA program helped him land a tech job. He now leads a team of designers at a company with a long list of Fortune 500 clients.
Mendoza, of Monterrey, Mexico, was 9 when his mother told him to fit all of his toys into one backpack. A few hours later, he and his younger brother entered the country illegally through the San Ysidro Port of Entry.
Mendoza said he knew that DACA wasn’t a permanent solution. Still, it was a game changer for him.
“It gave me the peace of mind I never had my entire life of walking into a place, being asked for my identification and not having to give them my foreign Mexican identification card and getting weird looks,” he said.
If DACA is rescinded by the Supreme Court, Mendoza hopes that President Trump or Congress will intervene and find a permanent fix for him and others in similar situations.
“I’ve lived here my entire life and love this country. I just want some stability,” he said.
At first, DACA made Sergio Cortes feel liberated. Eventually, it drove him into hiding.
Cortes remembers watching President Obama’s news conference in 2012 at the White House Rose Garden from his home in Fresno. He remembers Obama saying that protecting Dreamers was “the right thing to do.”
Cortes, now 35, held a community fundraiser at a Christian youth ministry center to pay for his DACA application, selling enchiladas for donations. On one wall, he strung together a timeline of major moments in his life, including photos of himself as a 5-year-old shortly after he arrived in California and in high school around the time he found out exactly what it meant to not have legal status.
He got the DACA approval letter in mid-2013.
Cortes owns a media production company and never relied on a work permit to make a living. But DACA changed his life in other ways: He used his new Social Security number to rent an apartment and, though he’s never had a license, he did have a government-issued ID to hand to police when his wife got pulled over for a traffic violation.
Then Trump was elected. Once Cortes learned about Trump’s immigration plan, he felt it was no longer safe for the federal government to have access to his personal information.
When Trump announced that he would rescind DACA, Cortes decided not to renew. His protections under DACA expired in June 2017, and he wondered when Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents would start rounding up and deporting people like him.
He coached his wife and housemate on what to do if ICE showed up at their door and whom to call if he was detained. Through the media, he heard about cases of DACA recipients being detained around the country. His anxiety grew.
He became afraid to leave his home. He lost several pounds. A counselor diagnosed him with post-traumatic stress disorder. He learned that years of unresolved trauma over his legal status had built up. Counseling helped him recall a memory of walking through the desert and then hiding in a car all day as he and his mom crossed the border from Mexico.
Eventually, Cortes learned how to manage his panic attacks. He started practicing self-care — journaling and drawing his thoughts.
Cortes sees his experience with DACA as layered. The journey was in many ways painful, but ultimately taught him perseverance.
“I’m a survivor,” he said.
His son, Elijah, was born on Father’s Day.
Anabell Libio was 8 when her mother brought her to California and left her in the care of her stepfather.
By 15, Libio had signed up for a driver’s education class and was gearing up to take the exam for her permit. She finally learned that she wasn’t a U.S. citizen when her stepfather couldn’t provide the Social Security number she needed for the registration form.
Though he was born in the U.S., her stepfather, who worked as a janitor, couldn’t afford the legal fees required to formally adopt her.
During her last year of high school, Libio’s grades started slipping as she realized how limited her career options were. She went to Cal State Dominguez Hills but eventually dropped out when it became too expensive. The only one of her five siblings who wasn’t a U.S. citizen or legal resident, she turned to baby-sitting to make money.
Libio was 26 when DACA was established, and life became easier. She applied for a driver’s license the same month that she received her work permit, in December 2013. She stopped babysitting and started working full-time as a personal assistant.
She married a U.S. citizen in 2015. The next year, she flew to the Philippines to recruit artists on behalf of the record label she worked for. That trip was made possible by a special travel permission called advance parole.
Reentering the U.S. under advance parole wiped away her original unlawful presence and its penalties. Immigrants like Libio then could have a qualifying relative, such as a U.S.-citizen spouse or parent, sponsor them for permanent residence.
The Trump administration rescinded advance parole for DACA recipients in 2017. Libio received legal residency that same year.
Soon after, she started attending Los Angeles Pacific University with hopes of becoming a cardiac nurse. With DACA before the Supreme Court, Libio said she worries most about students like herself.
“If they discontinued DACA, it would be taking away people’s hope,” she said.
Recently, Libio started studying for something else: her citizenship exam. She’s eligible to apply starting Jan. 4.