When President Obama announced in November that he would extend deportation relief to an estimated five million undocumented immigrants, a group of a dozen and a half students gathered in a classroom at Texas A&M University to watch the broadcast together.
The congratulations rained down on one student in particular. Alfredo Garcia, a senior who came to Texas on a tourist visa in 2007, would finally be able to work legally in the United States. The news came just in time, since he would be graduating in the spring.
"I didn't want to cry because there were a lot of people, but it really was an emotional moment for me," he told Fusion.
The celebration was short-lived. In December, a coalition of states, led by Texas, sued the Obama administration over the president's actions. Since then, the new programs have been stalled in legal limbo, leaving some students wondering what comes next.
Garcia can't enter the workforce or even pursue his doctorate, since a Ph.D. could require him to work part-time as an instructor. But he has a particularly good backup plan: he's going to undertake a master's degree in theology at Harvard Divinity School, with most expenses paid through grants and scholarships.
"I have two more years to continue studying," he said. "I know we're going to continue fighting."
President Obama's historic deportation relief programs have allowed young people who entered the country illegally or overstayed visas to obtain work permits. Although the new measures he announced in November are frozen in litigation, the original version of the president's deportation relief plan, which he announced in June 2012, still stands. More than 638,000 young people have been approved for that program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).
But even those students wonder about their future in the American workforce.
Young people approved for DACA can apply for work permits, but the document is temporary; you need to renew every two years under the currently enforced guidelines.
The next president could end the program, yanking away work permits and exposing more than half a million young people to the threat of deportation. Several Republican candidates, including Sen. Ted Cruz (Texas), have vowed to do just that.
Even at its best, the DACA program — a temporary measure — presents undocumented college students with challenges most of their peers don't need to worry about.
Moses Chege (pronounced "SHEH-geh") is only in his first year at Whitworth University, a private liberal arts school in Spokane, Washington, and he's already concerned about what will happen after graduation.
His father brought him to the U.S. from Kenya in 2001, as a dependent on a student visa, but the visa has since expired. Chege has been approved for DACA and while he's not in the full-time workforce, he's heard stories from friends about having trouble landing a job.
"A lot of large employers will ask, 'Do you need sponsorship to work or will you ever need sponsorship to work?' That's sort of a tricky question when your work permit is only two years," he told Fusion.
He says he wouldn't tell employers he needs sponsorship, since he has a valid work permit and because his situation is more complicated than someone with a short-term visa.
"That would lead you down a rabbit hole of other questions that you may not be able to answer or could put you in a tough position," he said.
Another problem: although undocumented immigrants aren't eligible for federal financial aid and most private loans, some schools, like Whitworth University, will allow students to take out loans that draw on the college's endowment.
Chege, whose education will be mostly funded through grants and scholarships, will still need to take out loans. He estimates he'll owe $10,000 to $15,000 by the time he graduates.
"That's certainly a burden that I'll only be able to bear if I have DACA," he said.
Claudia Quiñonez is still in the midst of her degree — she's about to finish her associate's degree and then head to University of Maryland Baltimore County for her political science bachelor's in the fall — but she's already experienced the tenuous nature of a DACA work permit.
She's been working in a Maryland accounting office to pay her tuition. When it came time to renew her enrollment in the DACA program last year, however, the 20-year-old student didn't have the money to cover the $465 re-application fee, she says.
"My employer told me that if I didn't have a valid work authorization, I wouldn't be able to stay at my workplace," she said. "I was really scared."
Luckily she received her renewal in time — just a day before her work eligibility would have expired at the end of March.
Quiñonez, who was born in Bolivia and came to the U.S. at age 11, believes she's been treated fairly in the workplace with her DACA-related work permit. The bigger worry is whether the program will exist at all under the next president.
"I don't know if I'm going to be able to pursue my dreams or if I'm going to have to go back to the shadows," she said.
Ted Hesson was formerly the immigration editor at Fusion, covering the issue from Washington, D.C. He also writes about drug laws and (occasionally) baseball. On the side: guitars, urban biking, and fiction.