Going into her senior year at Muchin College Prep High School in the Loop, Lucero Estrada had the usual worries for a kid who had always worked hard in school and was looking ahead to college.

Studying for tests. Keeping her grades up. Staying organized so she’d have time for a tough courseload along with outside activities. Putting together personal essays to sway college admissions officers and snag the scholarship money she needed.

She also had a bigger concern: Even if she got in to the college she was hoping for, would she be allowed to stay and finish? Or would she end up having to leave the United States and return to Mexico, where she hadn’t lived since her parents came here when the now-18-year-old was just 3?

Until now, Lucero, who isn’t a U.S. citizen, has lived in Chicago under the protection of the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. That’s the federal program allowing people who have been living in the United States without documentation after being brought here as children to remain and go to school and work without fear they would be deported. Widely known as DACA, it covers what the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency estimates to be about 34,000 “Dreamers” in the Chicago area and about 700,000 nationwide.

President Donald Trump said last year he wanted to end the program and that DACA renewals would be cut off in March.

That touched off fears among those who have come under DACA’s protections and their families.

Facing pressure even from within his own party, Trump left it to the Republican-dominated Congress to hash out legislation to legalize young, undocumented immigrants like Lucero and possibly create a path for them to U.S. citizenship. That hasn’t happened, though lawsuits have delayed any action.

Just after Christmas and soon after Lucero donned the light-blue uniform shirt Muchin bestows on seniors when they are accepted to college, a federal judge issued a ruling keeping DACA afloat.

Lucero Estrada in her college seminar at Muchin College Prep.

Lucero Estrada in her college seminar at Muchin College Prep. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Lucero graduated earlier this month from Muchin with a stellar 3.87 grade-point average, after taking classes senior year that included Advanced Placement psychology, Spanish and literature.

Like many of her classmates, she’ll be the first in her family to go to college. And she has won a full ride to Luther College in Iowa, her top choice.

But her DACA term is set to expire in December — around when she’ll be taking her first college finals.

“It’s just kind of frustrating,” she says of the uncertainty. “People do all of these illegal things, like drinking, smoking at not a right age, right? And it’s good — unless you get caught. But why is my education in jeopardy . . . once my DACA expires?

“I’m trying to put myself in a position where I’m proud and successful and can prove to anyone who has doubted me that I could do it.”

Lucero says she always knew she’d been born in Mexico and that she was brought to the U.S. when she was 3. The oldest of three children of restaurant workers, she just didn’t fully realize how much her birthplace might matter until she got to high school and learned that she is a Dreamer.

So she says she felt the need to push herself harder than kids who’d been born here, who don’t need to study in a language that she still remembers learning and that she doesn’t speak at home.

Dreamers have little wiggle room academically if they want to qualify for college scholarships, needing to rely on private scholarships based on merit because they don’t qualify for income-based financial aid that’s open to U.S. citizens. That means no Illinois MAP grants, no Pell grants, no Stafford loans.

Their pool of college possibilities also is smaller. Not all colleges offer support for undocumented students or have money to give them. And some parents of undocumented teens fear putting their kids on a plane or letting them leave Chicago.

Undocumented students at Muchin are luckier than many. The school — part of the Noble Network of privately run, publicly-funded charter schools — requires its students to take a college seminar class that helps them learn to navigate the admissions process, takes them on campus visits, marks application deadlines and matches them with schools thought to be especially good at supporting Latino students all of the way through graduation. Undocumented seniors all have the same college counselor. And the school has a Dreamers Club.

Noble also offers a perk just for undocumented students — a scholarship from a local foundation that’s good at more than 20 private, liberal arts partner schools and amounts to the roughly $12,000 that a typical student who is an American citizen could get in federal student aid. By comparison, the “Dream Fund” scholarship that the Chicago Public Schools offer is much smaller, up to $2,500.

After any of the colleges accepts one of Noble’s undocumented students, it agrees to cover most of their tuition and board. The student has to come up with $2,000 a year. The Pritzker Traubert Foundation and the Pritzker Foundation — a Noble school is named for the family — makes up the gap.

In the fall, Muchin’s counselors told the seniors the scholarship fund couldn’t yet guarantee awards for all of the Dreamers. So the undocumented kids across Noble’s 17 high schools found themselves competing for money, too.

The anxiety over what happens next — what if DACA doesn’t get renewed? — has left some kids on the verge of tears at school, according to Dominique Maxey Vega, the Dreamers’ counselor at Muchin.

“We’re moving forward as if everything is going to remain in place because their daily reality is so grim sometimes with the changes, being worried, being anxious about these things,” she says. “It’s not that I don’t want to be realistic about what’s happening, but we want to show you that you can still have options and lead a normal life — just as any American teenager is leading a ‘normal life.’ ”

But the Dreamers, Maxey Vega says, have to be “10 times as good as everybody else because they’re going to be judged so much more harshly, the options are limited, and the margin of error is that much smaller.”

That meant no cutting class, no blowing off assignments, definitely no Cs, says Andrea Sicarios Velazquez, whose parents brought her to the United States as a 2-year-old from Mexico when her father got a construction job.

Andrea Sicarios Velazquez, 18, a "Dreamer" who graduated earlier this month from Muchin College Prep High School in downtown Chicago.

Andrea Sicarios Velazquez, 18, a “Dreamer” who graduated earlier this month from Muchin College Prep High School in downtown Chicago. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

“They wanted to give me their life,” says Andrea, the oldest of four children brought here when she was two, and the only one who is undocumented. “I just want to pay them back for everything they’re trying to do for me. So I say getting an education is what would help them say that whatever they did was worth it.”

With two AP courses this year, Andrea’s school days during her varsity volleyball season could last until 9 p.m.

“I myself just was trying to push myself to get those grades because I know it’s harder for me in general being a Dreamer,” she says, “that even though my grades might be up to the standards of everybody else, just because I’m a Dreamer cuts me off from all those other opportunities.”

Alan Platon’s days went late, too, during soccer season. He also had an AP class and strict teachers, plus a commute to and from the Far North Side.

“My friends, they skip school,” the 18-year-old says. “They’re documented, and they don’t even take school serious. I wish, if I were in their shoes, I’d take school serious knowing that I was documented and I have opportunities. But they’re throwing it all away and not focusing on what’s good for them and just going out and having fun.”

Alan Platon (second from left), a "Dreamer" who graduated earlier this month from Muchin College Prep High School, prepares to perform with his advisory group as part of the Chicago school's college signing day.

Alan Platon (second from left), a “Dreamer” who graduated earlier this month from Muchin College Prep High School, prepares to perform with his advisory group as part of the Chicago school’s college signing day. | Erin Brown / Sun-Times

Alan says he “came over” from Mexico as a 3-year-old with his family, who run an auto mechanic shop.

The thought of “returning” to a country that he and the other Muchin Dreamers don’t even remember, to relatives they barely know, is too depressing.

”It’s something I try not to think about because it’s probably going to like, bring me down,” Alan says. “I only want to focus on the good things and not the bad things.”

Right before graduation, Muchin celebrated “College Signing Day,” a party with a radio DJ to celebrate the collective millions of dollars in college scholarships that the class of 2018 pulled in.

Alan soon will be headed to Albion College in Michigan, where he’s interested in studying business. Andrea is planning to study nursing at Dominican. Lucero plans to study psychology and maybe law at Luther, about five hours from home.

“My parents have given us a life that, like, I can’t complain about,” Lucero says. “But obviously you know they can’t give me every single thing. And so knowing that like I have a scholarship…is really relieving because, at the start of this year, I didn’t know if I was going to get it.

“I was just worried about how I was going to get the money. And I didn’t want to put so much pressure on my parents. And that added to the separate obstacles of having to work 10 times harder than a regular student.”

MORE IN ‘THE THIRD BORDER’ SERIES:
• With no papers, no insurance, Maria relies on ‘angels’ in cancer fight, Dec. 24, 2017
• For immigrant crime victims, police block path to win special visas, June 4, 2017
• ‘Dreamers’ could face choice: Stay, or go with deported parents, April 2, 2017
• Could Trump seek undocumented immigrants’ driver’s licenses here? March 5, 2017
• Doctors gave fake medical opinions to help win citizenship, Feb. 26, 2017
• Deportation takes toll on family left behind in Chicago, Feb. 19, 2017
• In Immigration Court, few criminals, far more minor offenders, Feb. 12, 2017