Southern Oregon University student Linda Escot remembers her reaction when President Donald Trump said he plans to end a program that allows her and 800,000 other young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children to work and go to school legally.
"It was really heartbreaking. It was like a punch in the face. I couldn't believe it," said Escot, who drives, works and goes to college legally, thanks to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.
She was brought to America at age 6 and dreams of becoming a pediatrician.
In a Sept. 5 announcement, Trump said he would phase out DACA, but would give Congress six months to adopt a replacement. That evening, he seemed to soften his stance, tweeting he would revisit the issue if Congress didn't act.
President Barack Obama created the DACA program in 2012 — sidestepping Congress after lawmakers repeatedly refused to create a path to legal residency for those brought to the country illegally as children.
Since Trump waded into the fray, debate has continued at the national level, with congressional Democrats floating an idea to create a path to citizenship after eight years for the immigrants, who are often called "dreamers." Some conservative Republicans in Congress have their own proposal to double that time frame.
The White House is circulating proposals to toughen border security, place new restrictions on legal immigration and hire more immigration enforcement agents, although it says congressional approval of the proposals isn't required for Trump to support extending DACA-like protections, The Associated Press reported in late September.
Uncertainty at the national level has left local DACA students and recent graduates wondering whether they should be worried or hopeful.
"It's been a lot of back-and-forth," Escot said. "Rather than bringing my hopes up that maybe I could get residency or citizenship, I try to stay neutral and keep pushing forward. I don't want to be disappointed. I go back to my books and give it my all."
Escot is starting her junior year at SOU, where she takes challenging science courses in preparation for a career in medicine. She must apply to renew her DACA authorization every two years. If she can't get a renewal, her current authorization will expire at the beginning of her senior year.
Escot said if that happened, she would try to push forward through her final year and earn her degree, but doesn't know whether she would apply to medical school.
DACA students are not eligible for federal student loans. Those who enter medical school typically rely on private loans and scholarships. Some medical schools allow undocumented students, while others do not, according to the national Pre-Health Dreamers network.
Without legal status, Escot said she doubts she could get a private loan to help finance the high cost of medical school. She would graduate from SOU but not become a pediatrician.
"My hopes and dreams would end there," she said.
Losing her DACA authorization also would make it hard to work. During the summer, Escot held down two jobs — one in retail and another at a restaurant. She is continuing to work as a waitress during the SOU school year.
After growing up in America, she said Mexico is like a foreign country to her.
Like Escot, recent SOU graduate Ricardo Lujan is reconsidering his plans to pursue an advanced degree. He was brought to America at age 8.
He earned a bachelor's degree in business administration and moved to Portland this summer after landing a job with the Oregon Student Association.
"I planned on going to law school. That has always been a dream of mine," said Lujan, who held various jobs — including as a paralegal — while working his way through college. "I will definitely have to postpone that. If DACA is rescinded, how will I even get a loan to go to law school in the first place? I was barely able to manage as an undergrad. How will I be able to afford law school? You need to be able to provide a Social Security number for scholarships. I won't even be able to get started in the first place."
Lujan said DACA participants are worried information they provided to the government might be used against them or their family members. They provide details about their travels and where they've lived for the past 10 years, along with other data.
"They dig into your life pretty extensively," he said. "Some people still live with their folks. When they put down their address, they're putting their whole family in jeopardy."
Lujan said DACA participants also are worried about their ability to keep working and take out car and house loans if the program is rescinded.
Nationally, nearly 800 business leaders have signed a letter to Congress calling for a permanent legislative solution for DACA participants. They said if DACA recipients are deported, the economy will lose $460.3 billion from the gross domestic product and Social Security and Medicare will lose $24.6 billion in tax contributions. The businesses they represent range from Walmart to Facebook to General Motors.
"All DACA recipients grew up in America, registered with our government, submitted to extensive background checks, and are diligently giving back to our communities and paying income taxes," the business leaders said in the letter. "More than 97 percent are in school or in the workforce, 5 percent started their own businesses, 65 percent have purchased a vehicle, and 16 percent have purchased their first home."
The American Medical Association sent a letter to Congress saying the nation's health care workforce depends on the care provided by physicians and medical students with DACA status. The nation has a shortage of 8,200 primary care doctors — and that shortage is expected to mushroom to 61,700 to 94,700 doctors in less than a decade. The DACA program could add 5,400 otherwise ineligible doctors in coming decades to address the shortage, the letter said.
Medical students with DACA status are now facing uncertainty about completing their degrees, paying their loans and serving patients. Deporting those students would waste medical education funds, leave training slots unfilled and exacerbate the physician shortage, the AMA said in the letter.
While business leaders and many other organizations want DACA students and workers to stay in the country, Trump has been lambasted by some congressional Republicans, talk radio hosts and grassroots supporters for appearing to waffle on his anti-illegal immigration campaign platform.
Republican Congressman Mo Brooks of Alabama has warned that anything that smacks of amnesty and "gives American jobs to illegal aliens rather than American citizens" would not be well received.
In an opinion piece, Scott Greer, deputy editor of The Daily Caller, a politically conservative website co-founded by Fox News host Tucker Carlson, said DACA is a work permit program that allows non-citizens who came here illegally to take jobs that would otherwise likely go to American citizens, a view shared by many other conservatives. He said businesses have a financial interest in maintaining DACA so they have access to a pool of cheap immigrant labor.
Meanwhile, SOU is among hundreds of colleges and universities nationwide that support the continuation of DACA protections. SOU will follow the law and not release confidential student information, including immigration status, SOU President Linda Schott said in a statement.
Rogue Community College is also welcoming DACA students. RCC doesn't check on immigration status, and as an open enrollment institution, provides education to everyone regardless of status, said spokesman Grant Walker.
As the controversy swirls, Lujan said DACA participants struggle to remain positive.
"A lot of them are worried, and rightfully so. We're worried about our own lives and our families. I've seen a lot of people being resilient. That's a trait of immigrants in the U.S. We try to adapt. We're all trying our best to not change our state of mind and our lives," he said.
"We're trying to take it one day at a time."
Ashland builder and developer Laz Ayala provides scholarships for a half-dozen DACA students at SOU each year. He was brought to America illegally in 1981 as a 14-year-old from war-torn El Salvador. In the pre-DACA era, he had to drop out of community college after officials discovered his immigration status.
He became a legal resident through marriage in 1989 and gained his citizenship in 1993.
Ayala said uncertainty over DACA is taking a toll on students.
"This really adds to the anxiety these students are under already. When there's talk of ending DACA in six months, the anxiety multiplies. It becomes a lot more real," he said. "I hope Congress will step in and create a more permanent policy toward the DACA students and provide more stability."
Ayala said he's consistently impressed when he sits in on the interview and application process for DACA students hoping to win scholarships.
"They have a lot of drive and a desire to better themselves, help their families and parents and give back to the community. They want to make a difference in the community. That is a very common feeling they express," he said. "They're hard workers. They're tenacious. They're not quitters. They haven't gotten this far in life being weak. They're strong kids."
Ayala said one of the new scholarship recipients this year is a young man who would work in the construction industry for several months, then go to college for a term or two, then have to quit school until he earned more money.
"Now maybe he can work a little less and take more classes," Ayala said.
Escot said anxiety over DACA's future affects high school students as well as college students like herself. She serves as a mentor, introducing high school youths and their families to campus life through SOU's Latino Family Day and Academia Latina program.
"This summer I had a couple of DACA students, girls who were straight-A students. These girls are really smart and I was inspired by their courage. They opened up about their situation," she said. "I worry about them. They're so young. Will uncertainty over DACA discourage them from going to school? I try to stay in touch with them and tell them to pursue their dreams."