Justino Mora was an all-star teenager: the co-captain of his track and field team, a youth altar boy at his Los Angeles church and in the top 5% of his graduating class.
But his ambitions had limitations. Mora crossed over to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 11 years old. Even though he was accepted into Cal Poly and University of California, Berkeley, because he is an undocumented immigrant, he didn't qualify for state financial aid.
"It changed my view of the American Dream," he said. "We're told if we do our best, that all these doors of opportunity will open up. For me that wasn't the case."
He is one of more than 700,000 children brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents who were given protected status under former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive order.
Mora, an immigrant rights activist, is now looking to see how Democratic presidential candidates will think about the future of young people in the same plight.
California Sen. Kamala Harris is the most recent candidate to release a proposal addressing the group this week detailing how she would use executive action to help Dreamers reach citizenship. Her proposal is aimed at breaking the barriers Dreamers often face when trying to apply for citizenship. The policy plan teases out whether an applicant is considered to have entered the country lawfully or unlawfully, has maintained lawful status and whether he or she accepted authorized employment.
Julia Gelatt, a senior policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute said Harris' proposal gets at critical hurdles Dreamers face.
"Right now there are a lot of unauthorized immigrants and Dreamers who might have a family member or employer who would wish to sponsor them for a green card. But under the current law, they face barriers," Gelatt said. "She’s trying to remove some of those barriers so they can find legal status."
Harris held an immigration policy roundtable Friday with Dreamers, including Astrid Silva at the University of Nevada immigration clinic in Las Vegas. Nevada is home to roughly 13,000 Dreamers.
Harris said she would implement her executive order for Dreamers on her first day in office, and also said with her history of fighting against attempts to undo DACA in the past, she is prepared to fight for it again in the courtroom if her executive order was taken to court. She also made it clear that undocumented youth wouldn't be the only people she'd be fighting for, and extending the "ceiling and floor" when it came to a path to citizenship for all ages was a priority.
Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro is another 2020 candidate with a solution for Dreamers and was the first candidate with a proposal on immigration. Unlike Harris, who intends to use executive authority, he hopes to use the legislative progress to fight for DACA and Temporary Protected Status, people from select countries are offered temporary protections because their home regions are exceptionally violent or were damaged by natural disasters. His goal is to help Dreamers and those under Temporary Protected Status and Deferred Enforced Departure achieve citizenship through the Dream and Promise Act of 2019.
Gelatt says, "It seems like they have the same plan A but Harris is thinking ahead to what she might to if Congress doesn’t open that path." She called Harris' proposal a "pessimistic" because it bypasses Congress but later added, "It’s probably quite realistic for Harris to think even with a new Congress striking a deal for protections could remain very difficult."
Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke also released a proposal two weeks ago stating that as a part of his first 100 days in office, he would create an "earned pathway to citizenship" for 11 million people including Dreamers and those under Temporary Protected Status through a series of executive and legislative actions.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee's immigration policy while focusing on climate migration features a sweeping overhaul of the immigration system and focuses on a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and expedited eligibility for Dreamers.
Many other candidates haven't rolled out proposals but many have been vocal on the fate of DACA recipients.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar was one of the senators on the bipartisan group of senators who negotiated on behalf of their cause with Trump, a decision that got a lot of pushback from immigrant rights groups. She said on "This Week" she would be willing to go along with some wall funding in turn for protections for Dreamers.
Most other candidates have addressed the Dreamer issue without supporting any aspect of Trump's long-desired border wall in exchange.
Cory Booker told NPR, "I will do everything I can to ensure that DACA children, that Dreamers, who are Americans in every way except for a piece of paper."
In his first CNN Town Hall, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said Dreamers were "not U.S. citizens, but in many cases, this is the only country they can even remember because they came to this country through no choice of their own. And so I think it's one of the reasons why there's a broad U.S. consensus that we need to find a way to protect Dreamers."
Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney in the past called Trump's decision to end DACA "cruel, heartless and mean-spirited" and as a congressman, co-sponsored the DREAM Act in 2017. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock was one of eleven governors to sign a letter urging Congress to protect Dreamers.
Mora calls a majority of these plans a bare minimum.
"My biggest concern is that a lot of concern is going to DACA recipients where there should be more focus on inhumane actions of the U.S. government," he said. "What are we going to do about ice? Politicians should be talking about abolishing it."
While Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders states on his website that he voted against creating the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, he says he now wants to completely reshape it and has also laid out a plan to expand DACA and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents. He told Telemundo he would act on immigration in the first 100 days on his administration.
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been vocal about abolishing ICE, while also calling for completely rebuilding the immigration system and supporting a pathway to citizenship and protection for DACA recipients and TPS.
Meanwhile, as Mora remains in limbo, always aware his current DACA status may not be renewed, he said he's more curious on how many politicians feel about the current state of immigration in the country.
"My question is how do those elected officials feel that their decisions are resulting in babies not seeing their parents one more day? Do they feel ashamed? Do they feel ashamed about living in the best country in the world, but in reality, we have people in detentions, people getting killed by ICE willful negligence?"
He says their actions are more important than his feelings when it comes to this issue.
"I made the decision a long time ago to live my life to the fullest and not see the government to my pursuit of happiness."