WASHINGTON - At the center of congressional sparring over the federal budget this week were hundreds of thousands of undocumented young people left in legal limbo after President Donald Trump’s administration ended a policy that shielded some of them from deportation.
As the deadline for a government shutdown neared, activists – many undocumented themselves – were still pushing for a law that would replace the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which since 2012 allowed nearly 800,000 undocumented young adults to live and study or work in the country legally, although with no path to citizenship. Without a fix, they will remain unprotected - with more than 100 reverting to a wholly undocumented status every day as their paperwork expires.
All week, some 150 activists knocked on the doors of House and Senate members, hoping to persuade lawmakers to include safeguards for undocumented youth - the so-called Dreamers, in the budget spending bill that was to be voted on Friday.
Abigail Zapote, the rally organizer and a vice president for young adults at the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, knows what it's like to live in the United States undocumented, but became a legal resident. From a podium in front of the Capitol Building on Friday she shared that some of her relatives remain undocumented.
"We cannot wait any longer. Millions and millions of families across the country are continuously living in fear," said Zapote.
Republicans and Democrats are at odds over what each side is willing to concede in the spending stalemate, and undocumented youth are at the forefront. Activists want a new version of the DREAM Act, which would allow them to eventually stay permanently in the country.
They blame lawmakers for the impasse. Lawmakers blame each other. Democrats favor including an amendment to the budget that would cover DACA recipients; Republicans, however, control both chambers of Congress and the White House. While some lawmakers on the right want to help the young, for undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children, the issue has become an increasingly bigger flashpoint.
"The Democratic leader has convinced his members to filibuster any funding bill that doesn't include legislation they are demanding for people who came into the United States illegally," top-ranking Republican Senator Mitch McConnell said Friday morning. "What has been shoehorned into this discussion is an insistence that we deal with an illegal immigration issue."
?LULAC's Zapote told VOA, "I think, you know, for all the senators, for all the legislators that keep pushing the DREAM Act off to next week, off to next month - we don't have next week, we don't have next month. Our families are getting torn apart ... we are doing nothing but hoping that all of our visits can hit on the heartstrings of all of our legislators to let them know that we need to come to a solution yesterday. We need a solution now."
Among the activists Friday was 24-year-old Maria Siaca, who took off work managing the family business in New York to spend the week in Washington, lobbying on behalf of Dreamers like herself with the group Zapote organized.
"I'm here representing my siblings too. I have four other DACA siblings," she explained. "I'm fighting for them, but at the same time - mine's expired already."
The Trump administration's cancellation of the Deferred Action policy means already, some of the beneficiaries are crossing back from a semi-legal status they called being "DACA-mented" into fully undocumented - and at risk for deportation.
So Siaca has been thinking about her Plan B: if there is no law protecting her like DACA did, if nothing changes, if she gets deported, what would life be like back in Mexico?
Her siblings - all younger than 30 - and their parents are hopeful. Siaca said she doesn't feel as upbeat. But she's trying to stay informed: about the Mexican presidential elections in July, about how she'd get by in a country she left as a child.
The Mexican government, she said, promised DREAMERS and DACA recipients that if they are deported, they'll have jobs there. More than half a million DACA recipients were born in Mexico, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute.
"But we all know it's not going to be like that," says Siaca. "They don't care about us."
She and friend Ismary Calderon woke up Friday morning, listened to Bob Marley and Puerto Rican rapper Residente to build up their energy, and headed to Capitol Hill with dozens of other activists for a final day to be heard by lawmakers before the vote.
Together, they held a banner at the rally before heading to lawmakers' offices once again to advocate for the budget to include protections for them.
The banner, in muted earth tones of greens and yellows and browns, had a proverb well-known and loved in Mexico painted across it: "They want to bury us. But they forget we're seeds."