In high school, being involved was important to Andrea De La Vega. She was editor of the school newspaper. She was the lead attorney on the mock trial team. She was in the top 10 percent of her class at Edinburg High School, which all but guaranteed entry into UT Austin, one of her top schools, when she applied in 2009.
That’s when she realized her immigration status could hold her back.
De La Vega was born in Mexico and didn’t have a Social Security number, so she couldn’t apply for student loans or scholarships.
Similar to many DACA recipients, De La Vega and her sister, Claudia, were born in Mexico, but moved to Texas as children. Unlike other DACA recipients, their parents came here legally.
Their father, an architect, got a job in Texas, allowing him to get a work visa that covered the entire family.
Once here, their parents started the process to get permanent residency. That process took more than 20 years.
By that time, three of the four De La Vega kids had aged out of their parents’ protection. The youngest, Omar, is a legal resident along with his parents, while the oldest three – Jorge, Claudia and Andrea – were left with no legal status.
Now, Claudia is an architect, like her dad, and Andrea is an office manager for a psychiatrist. After years of struggling to find jobs, having careers they are passionate about is new for them. Both attended Texas colleges that worked with immigrant students, but after graduation, they had no way to work.
“I just didn’t have a job, I had no source of income,” Claudia says. “[I] found ways to make ends meet like selling stuff, going to the thrift store and reselling it on eBay. Anything I could do, literally, to get some money.”
Andrea faced a similar situation and was paid under the table while working at a restaurant. They had college degrees and career goals. But their immigration status prevented them from getting jobs they were qualified for – until DACA.
“I got my DACA on Feb. 14 of 2014,” Andrea says. “I remember being like this is my Valentine, that’s how happy I was to get it.”
Growing up, Andrea heard the same advice most kids get from parents and teachers: Do well in school, work hard, and you can achieve your dreams. For her, that meant being a lawyer, but her struggles getting into college made it hard to think about going to law school. DACA changed her mindset.
“The American dream is real! I can go to school, I can get a job,” she says. “As soon as I got it, I applied to jobs in Austin and immediately moved here because it’s always what I wanted to do. This thing was a ticket to start what I wanted to do.”
DACA allowed Claudia, who worked five years on an architecture degree, to get a job in her field. She now designs custom homes for a firm in Austin.
‘A place where you belong’
Now that the White House says DACA will end in six months, the De La Vega sisters face two very different paths forward. Andrea is eligible to renew her work permit for two more years, but after that, it’s unknown.
Claudia has a permanent solution through her fiancé, Marc Jorge, who is a U.S. citizen.
“He’s helped me grow as a person so much,” she says. “He’s just the most genuine, kind-hearted person I’ve ever met.”
Claudia and Marc have dated for three years, but have known each other since they were 15.
When the White House announced its DACA decision, he suggested moving up their wedding date. Once they’re married, Claudia can apply for a more permanent status.
“If it would have been me, I would have been like – ‘Let’s wait, in the church, with our parents and the ceremony,'” Claudia said. “We have to do this the right way. His mentality was – ‘No, you’re my soon-to-be wife and I’m going to protect you and that’s my job.’”
So last week, Marc, Claudia, Andrea and their parents went to the courthouse in downtown Austin. They had a short ceremony with a judge. Andrea signed the marriage certificate as a witness. Marc and Claudia are now legally married ahead of their big wedding in December.
Claudia can bring the paperwork to get permanent residency like her parents and youngest brother. But she still worries about her other two siblings.
“I feel so guilty about it,” Claudia said. “I’m the one that lucked out pretty much. They’re in a way different situation. If I were in their shoes, I wouldn’t know what to do.”
Andrea said she’s trying to stay hopeful. She wants Congress to address immigration reform so people like her can feel safe in the place they call home.
“It’s very, very upsetting to feel like you don’t really have a place where you belong,” Andrea said. “I mean, you don’t really belong in Mexico – because most of us haven’t been there in years and years and years – and you don’t belong here because literally the government’s telling you you don’t belong here.”