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Teens DACA advocates, TNS photo

From left, Alejandra Garcia Chavez, Joanna Sanchez and Giselle Gonzalez are looking to raise awareness about undocumented students and DACA program beneficiaries. 

AURORA, Ill. — Amid turbulence in national immigration policy, three teens are setting out to advocate for young, undocumented immigrants.

Alejandra Garcia Chavez, Joanna Sanchez, and Giselle Gonzalez have worked with others to raise awareness about immigration issues on the campus of Waubonsee Community College, they said. They are looking to expand their advocacy to adults in the Aurora area.

The work is personal for the teens. Chavez, 19, and Sanchez, 18, said they are beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, an Obama-era program that shields undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children. Gonzalez, 18, said she is a citizen but her parents are undocumented.

"It's hard to believe that somebody is holding my life and thousands of other peoples' lives in their hands," Sanchez said.

Their work comes amid uncertainty for some undocumented immigrants and DACA recipients about their status and futures in this country. President Donald Trump's administration moved to dissolve the DACA program in September, though a federal judge in California ordered the White House to keep DACA in place while a lawsuit is pending. Justice Department lawyers have asked the Supreme Court to review and repeal that ruling.

Illinois has the fourth largest number of DACA recipients in the country, with more than 35,600.

Congress and the White House continue to review various immigration measures. Trump proposed a path to citizenship for an estimated 1.8 million young, undocumented immigrants, more than twice as many "dreamers" than were DACA recipients. The proposal also included funding for a border wall, additional security upgrades at the southwestern and northern U.S. borders, and ending U.S. citizens' ability to petition for permanent legal residency for parents and siblings. Family visas would be limited to spouses and minor children.

Chavez was one of 125 "dreamers" who traveled to Washington, D.C., in early January with the organization to meet with members of Congress or their staffers and push for legislation. She said they were urging a permanent solution, and a path to citizenship for both current DACA beneficiaries and a larger undocumented population _ people with a high school diploma or GED, who are working toward a bachelor's degree or who have served at least two years in the military, she said.

Without such immigration legislation, her dreams could be in peril, she said. She hopes to go to Northern Illinois University after graduating from Waubonsee Community College and pursue a career as a math educator. Without legislation, it could be tough to get a job to help pay for education expenses, she said.

Sanchez has already faced obstacles because of her immigration status. She intended to go to Aurora University after graduating from high school, but an unexpected family situation arose and her mother could no longer work, she said. Undocumented students aren't eligible for federal financial aid.

She enrolled part-time at Waubonsee for fall semester, but is not enrolled this semester. Citizenship would not only have allowed her to apply for federal aid and possibly move forward with her plans for Aurora University, but it would also provide more certainty, she said.

"I would know that I wouldn't be worrying about my status," she said. "I wouldn't be worried that once my days run out from being protected under DACA, I would know that I could be here with my parents taking care of them if anything happened. But now it's uncertain."

The teens began working with other Waubonsee students during fall semester to spread word on campus, advocate for protecting DACA and promote legislation for undocumented young people, they said. In January they gave a presentation to faculty on supporting DACA and undocumented students.

They felt Waubonsee wasn't doing enough to support undocumented students, they said.

Waubonsee spokeswoman Amanda Geist said in a statement the college "empathizes" with students affected by changes to the DACA program, and has formed a DACA Response Team to "examine the college's understanding of those needs of students impacted by DACA, as well as the college's ability to address those needs." The team has sponsored and attended events, she said.

"Waubonsee Community College is, and will remain, a place for everyone to experience a full range of quality educational opportunities," she said.

The teens also want to expand their work to undocumented adults in the community, they said. They want to inform them of their rights and resources, they said.

Growing up, they said their lives were different than other teens. While her parents worked multiple jobs, Gonzalez used to pick up her younger brother after school and cook food. She now goes to work as a medical scribe after she cooks and cleans up from dinner, she said.

Gonzalez said growing up in Oswego, Ill., her family often didn't leave home after 5 p.m. because they thought more police officers were likely to be out at night.

Her parents have worked hard, Gonzalez said. She feels the least she can do is fight for their future, and work to be able to one day provide for them.

"It was very important for me to break that boundary, to break those statistics of, if your parents didn't go to college, your chances of going to college are lowered," she said. "And to me that was very important to break it and to pursue an education and to become the best outcome that I could possibly be, so that the sweat and tears and blood that my parents shed, it was worth it."

Though there has always been fear surrounding their immigration status, Trump's election ramped it up, the teens said. After the election, Gonzalez's family sat down and talked about what would happen if her parents were deported. Her father gave her information about the family bank accounts, important documents and information for an attorney she could call if something happened. They discussed custody of her younger brother.

Sanchez said she thinks part of the problem is that many people don't know much about immigration, and she thinks much of the rhetoric around undocumented immigrants comes out of fear.

"It's like they're throwing us back into the shadows," she said. "We're one step out of the shadows, not our parents maybe, but their kids, and they're trying to throw us back in the shadows through fear."

But they think sharing their stories and their advocacy work will help, they said. If they don't do it, Sanchez said, who will?

The Chicago Tribune contributed to this story.

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