Luz Bolanos always wanted to work in medicine.
In high school, she attended a medical program that catered to her interests in the field. She wasn’t sure what exactly she wanted to study or where she would go to college, but her focus was always on a career in healthcare.
Those dreams were shattered when she was advised that her undocumented status would put her at risk with the immigration authorities.
“I was told, ‘If you enter the medical field, you’re going to need a Social Security card and you don’t have it,’” Bolanos recalled. “‘So you might get a job or you might not and even then you might not be able to [grow in] your career.’”
So instead, she chose to study technology. Today, the 24-year-old Fort Worth resident is working on her master’s in information systems at the University of Texas at Arlington while serving as a paralegal.
“I love what I do now, but that wasn’t my path,” she said. “I do think about it all the time that I could have done medicine. I don’t think I should have been in that position to have to choose because of [paperwork].”
Bolanos has faced similar disappointments since she came to the U.S. as a 3-year-old with her family from Guanajuato, Mexico. It wasn’t until she was approved for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program — a program that protects her and about 690,000 from deportation — that things started to look up.
First hope, then heartbreak
She remembers sitting in her father’s truck in 2012 and listening to the radio with her mother.
When the newscasters reported the announcement of the Obama administration’s DACA program to protect people brought to the United States as children, her mother had asked her if they had just heard the same thing. Bolanos said yes but that she didn’t know what it meant.
Bolanos was nervous and skeptical about being registered in a federal system and getting fingerprinted, but her mother encouraged her, saying it was an opportunity she had to take.
After some research, she contacted Texas Mexico Law, where she now works, to help her apply.
Just being able to get a driver’s license made a world of a difference.
“I wasn’t scared anymore,” Bolanos said. “I was able to identify myself to the public. I grew up here in Texas and I was finally able to have a Texas ID."
Then came the bad news. Last Sept. 5, Bolanos was studying in a cafeteria at UT Arlington. She had an exam coming up but she also knew that U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions would be delivering a speech about DACA, the program that gave her more opportunities than before — but not legal status.
She opened Twitter to watch a live feed of the speech, only to hear Sessions say that DACA would end for more than 700,000 recipients in the U.S. unless Congress could pass a replacement. An estimated 7,700 of DACA recipients live in Tarrant County.
Bolanos broke down in tears.
“It made me feel like everything I had worked for was pointless. It didn’t mean anything to these people. I work really hard and I don’t think that should be taken away from me."
Last Monday, when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the White House’s request to have it decide the question of whether President Donald Trump’s administration can shut down the program, it felt like she had some breathing room.
Now a Trump-imposed deadline that was supposed to be Monday for Congress to find a legislative solution will have no effect while the case works its way through federal courts.
For Bolanos and thousands of others, their lives are still hanging in a legal limbo.
“I don’t want to go back to the country that my parents left,” Bolanos said. “I want to show my parents that their sacrifice was worthwhile. I want them to see that they did it for the better.”
Daniel Hernandez, an immigration attorney at Texas Mexico Law, has helped several clients receive DACA. Whenever there’s an announcement about DACA, he always has clients in his office asking him what to do.
Lately, he doesn’t know what to tell them.
He feels "uneducated,” Hernandez said. “People are coming in here and saying, ‘You’re the lawyer, you’re supposed to know this,’ but I don’t have a crystal ball. If there’s no law written, there’s nothing for me to interpret. It’s frustrating to not be able to give good, clear advice.”
Another Fort Worth DACA recipient, a 21-year-old woman who declined to give her name because she doesn't want to draw attention to herself, said that the only way she can validate her and her family’s sacrifices is by giving back to her community. She’s studying mathematics with an eye toward teaching at one of the low-income schools she herself attended.
The woman and her grandmother came to the U.S. from Tlaxcala, Mexico, when she was 4. When her parents first heard about DACA, they immediately sought out a lawyer to help them with the paperwork.
From the minute she wakes up to the minute she goes to sleep, she said she’s always thinking about something related to DACA. On some days, the anxiety becomes too hard to bear and she skips her classes. She recently failed a math test because she couldn’t focus.
Since she received a work permit when she was 16, she has been working part-time jobs to pay for college.
“I've been in school for three years now and I can't transfer out to a four-year university because I can't get financial aid,” she said. “I'd have to pay $10,000 out of pocket per semester, and I can't work that much.”
She said that when she turns to her family for comfort, the answer is always the same.
“My family is very Catholic,” she said. “It's always like ‘God's going to figure this out for you; you're a good person,’ but it's hard to rely on faith when you want answers now and when things keep changing.”
An earlier version of this article misnamed attorney Daniel Hernandez.