WASHINGTON – Hundreds of recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program came to Washington this week to push lawmakers of both parties to reach a permanent solution for Dreamers before it's too late.
"It's scary," 24-year-old DACA recipient Maria Praeli told CBN News. "I have a really strong network around me, but you still have to plan. How am I going to pay rent? How am I going to make sure I have meals a day? How am I going to drive?"
'When You're Five, You Don't Understand Immigration Policy'
Praeli came to the United States when she was just 5 years old. Her sister had been badly injured in a car accident that resulted in her losing a leg, so their mother wanted to move the family to America to have access to better medical treatment than Peru. The family overstayed their visa and settled near relatives in Connecticut.
"When you're 5 years old, you don't really understand what's going on much less what immigration policy is like," recalled Praeli.
But in high school, Praeli began to understand life as an undocumented immigrant.
"I always knew that things were different," Praeli told CBN News. "My mom would always tense up when a police officer would drive by, and I knew things were harder for us, but I didn't really understand what being undocumented would mean for me."
'I Felt American'
"I was really mad because I had grown up in the U.S. I had pledged allegiance every day. I felt American," she said.
Through the DACA program, Praeli's been able to get a license, employment and pursue education. That could end soon, however, with Praeli's DACA status set to expire February 16, 2018. Since that date falls before the Trump administration begins phasing out the program March 5, she's requested a final two years of protection. But she hasn't heard back on if her request has been approved.
"Someone like myself sent in her renewal months in advance, but I still have to plan to not have anything maybe for a week, maybe for a month depending on when I hear back, if I hear back," she said.
"Even though I sent in my renewal, I still have to plan," she continued. "And that's why legislation is so crucial because I've been living on an emotional roller coaster over the past few months and permanent legislation would give us that relief, that we no longer can plan in two years, now we can plan for a lifetime," said Praeli.
Praeli says passing legislation soon is critical because DACA recipients have already begun losing status.
"We believe that we need to get something done by January 19, and that is the absolute latest that we can wait," Praeli told CBN News. "Every single day 122 DACA recipients like myself are falling out of status, and once March 5 comes along you're going to have about 1,200 people every single day falling out of status."
Praeli got emotional thinking about what life would be like once permanent legislation is passed.
"To be able to wake up one day and know I'm going to be able to stay in the country I love and call home, it's almost too good to be true," said Praeli. "But I'm confident that we're going to do it, and I'm confident that the American public is with us."
Lawmakers Race against the Clock
Lawmakers from both parties are trying to protect the Dreamers, but negotiations are complicated because of other issues being added to the bill. President Donald Trump brought congressional leaders to the White House this week to push for a compromise that would address DACA as well as border security, chain migration, and the visa lottery program.
"The hope is to move the debate from differences to decision," said Sen. James Lankford, R -Okla., who attended the meeting.
Lankford told CBN News lawmakers need to act now if they're going to protect the Dreamers going forward.
"The deadline is the first week of March, but that's implementation deadline. That means that you've got to get the law passed early enough so that you can do implementation in time," said Lankford. "The challenge still remains to get everybody on the same bill and to say this is the exact language we're going to use to get it resolved."
Lankford hopes through negotiations, lawmakers will find a way to give DACA recipients a pathway to citizenship.
"In the DACA conversation we should have some way for those individuals to be able to get in line, and be able to end up in naturalization at the end of it – but they do need to be able to be in line," Lankford told CBN News. "It shouldn't be just an immediate turnaround on that and they should have a way to earn their citizenship through that process."
Lankford says Congress has every opportunity to pass something before the time runs out.
"There is every opportunity to do that," he said. "You never know how to guess with Congress. At this point, I'll say I'm one of the individuals working to say we need to get this resolved in law, not just have administrative decisions. It needs to be resolved in law."
President Trump says the one thing both parties have in common is that they want to see DACA settled once and for all.