Two sisters who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children plan to leave the country if Congress does not reach a deal for those protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which is set to expire on March 5.
Alex and Daniela Velez on Wednesday told CNN of their intention to leave on their own volition rather than risk deportation by the government.
"I will leave. I will leave America as soon as possible," said Alex, who is 19. "I want to be able to leave on my terms. I'm not going to be waiting for anyone to come for me."
"Alex and I are both over this [DACA situation]," added Daniela, who is 24. "I will close my business, leave work and school."
The DACA program, established by the Obama administration, provides legal protections to nearly 800,000 Dreamers, illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. President Donald Trump rescinded the program in September, arguing that it was conceived and implemented through executive overreach, and gave Congress six months to come up with alternative legislation before it formally expires on March 5.
Alex and Daniela, who live with their parents in a one-bedroom apartment in Burlington, New Jersey, were brought to the U.S. when they were four and nine years old, respectively. The family came to the U.S. from Venezuela on visitor visas in the late 1990s, hoping to escape a country that was quickly sliding toward authoritarianism under Hugo Chavez. They chose to remain in the country after their visa expired, even though they had dual citizenship for Venezuela and Ecuador.
Alex first realized that she was undocumented in 2012, when the Obama Administration implemented DACA by executive order and Daniela was old enough to apply.
"I only realized I was undocumented when I was in middle school," Alex said. "Most of my school friends still don't know about my situation."
Alex gained her own DACA status at 15 and was able to get a driver's license and later start taking classes at Camden County College in New Jersey.
Daniela's DACA status does not expire until 2019, although she will not stay in the U.S. if her sister cannot stay.
The Valez case showcases the complexity of the congressional debate over DACA as the deadline approaches. Alex and Daniela are Dreamers and have been granted a renewable two-year reprieve from deportation. DACA recipients are also eligible for work permits and drivers licenses.
If Congress extends current DACA provisions, Alex and Daniela would be allowed to remain in the country; their parents, however, would still be subject to deportation.
There is a broad bipartisan consensus in Congress to find a solution to help Dreamers, but one issue that has divided lawmakers is whether a DACA fix should include protections from deportation for their parents.
As the deadline for congressional action looms, Defense Secretary James Mattis announced on Thursday that any Dreamers on active duty, in the active reserves, and those have who signed papers to join the military and are awaiting deployment to boot camp will not be subject to deportation. Mattis also said those protections will extend to Dreamers who served in the military and were honorably discharged.