Though he’s lived in this country since he was 2, Juan Gomez has no permanent legal right to stay in the United States, let alone a guarantee of a chance to graduate from Georgetown University
By Phuong Ly
Washington Post Magazine, Sunday, February 22, 2009; W10
As the car pulled within sight of the stone Gothic spires, Juan Gomez sat up straighter. Everything at Georgetown University seems made to reach higher — the turreted buildings that hark to another era, the thick oaks shading the quad, and the students who walk with confidence and purpose.
For several minutes, Juan, who’d only seen photographs of the campus before, simply stared. A friend’s mother who accompanied him on that late-August day last summer recalls that the brown-haired 19-year-old looked just like any other student in his jeans and polo shirt. But Juan felt as if he had landed in another universe — a place light years away from the deportation letters, detention center jumpsuits and painful goodbyes of the previous year.
“Wow,” he told his friend’s mother, bounding up the steps to his new dorm. “This is so beautiful.”
Juan was still beaming as he examined the sterile, white-walled space in Copley Hall that he would share with another student. “This room,” he said, gazing at the two twin beds, two wooden desks and two dressers squeezed together, “is just great.” He meant it. Juan felt lucky to be at Georgetown, even though, in terms of academic accomplishment, he clearly belonged there.
His record is a litany of overachievement: a 1410 out of 1600 on the SAT; high scores on 13 Advanced Placement exams, which earned him close to two years of college credit; and a top-20 class rank at a competitive Miami high school. But Juan doesn’t have a clear right to be in the United States, much less at Georgetown. In 1990, when he was 2 years old, his family came to this country from Colombia on a tourist visa and never left. Once they were here, they applied for political asylum and spent almost 17 years building a modest life before their legal status finally caught up with them. In October 2007, after they were repeatedly denied political asylum, Juan’s parents and grandmother were deported to Colombia, a country that Juan can’t even remember.
Juan and his brother, Alex, have been spared, though it’s not clear for how long. Thanks to Juan’s academic achievements and intense lobbying by friends and supporters, lawmakers temporarily halted his deportation, a rare privilege. Juan applied to Georgetown as an international student and won a scholarship that covers most of his tuition and expenses. But unless Congress or the Obama administration grants him some sort of extension or waiver, Juan could be deported before he’s able to graduate, according to his lawyers. He might not be allowed to return for at least 10 years, if ever.
As he settles into Georgetown, Juan says he can’t afford to dwell on his precarious status. “I’ve been given this opportunity, and if I don’t take full advantage of it,” he says, “I’ll never forgive myself for it.”
Juan speaks in a serious, even tone. The trim beard that he began growing after his family was deported makes him seem even older. But his demeanor masks a mischievous streak, of which his friends are frequently the target.
After arriving in Washington, Juan quickly made use of a new cellphone number with a 202 area code. He called his friend Scott Elfenbein, who had spearheaded the campaign to prevent his deportation. Pretending to be a think tank director, Juan offered Scott an internship because of “what you’ve done for immigrants.”
“I totally fell for it,” Scott says. “We’re so used to him making jokes like that, but I still fell for it.”
Besides his close friendships and sense of humor, Juan’s other refuge is schoolwork. He usually waves off offers from friends to get together at the library. Instead, he holes up in his dorm room, sitting at his desk until the early morning hours. Among the messy stacks of paper and books, he becomes absorbed in work for his business classes: How can information systems be used for strategic purposes? Does this company have a financially sound balance sheet? What are the strengths of Wal-Mart versus Target? When he studies, everything but the work itself fades away.
“I focus on my academics,” he says.” I focus on what I can control.”
An estimated 65,000 young people in the United States graduate from high school each year in circumstances similar to Juan’s, according to the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Washington. These are teenagers who have been in the country at least five years, say researchers who prepared the 2003 study by analyzing population surveys and census data. When they finish high school, they watch their friends go off to college or work, and discover that it is impossible for them to do the same.
In 2007, the Senate considered and rejected the Dream Act, which would have given these young people a chance to become legal permanent residents. Critics of the bill warn that such exceptions would encourage people to come here illegally, particularly if they had young children in tow.
“Any time you give an amnesty for people who have broken the law, that gives an incentive for more people to break the law,” says Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, an Arlington group that lobbies to reduce immigration. Yet Beck acknowledges that he feels torn about Juan, who arrived at such a young age, saying that “on an individual basis, this sounds like the kind of person who you want to have some sort of leeway for.” Where, then, does Juan belong?
A couple of months into the fall semester, Juan walks along Georgetown’s brick paths, nodding occasionally at familiar faces. He has just completed his midterm exams and feels good about his classes. In the afternoon, he plans to play football with a group of friends. College life has become as comfortable as the gray, hooded Georgetown sweat shirt he often wears.
Juan is majoring in finance, and he’s full of ideas about what he could do with his degree. He could start his own company, work for an investment firm or go to law school. With credits already earned from high school and a Florida community college, he could graduate as early as May 2010.
Juan checks the stock market daily and finds its gyrations fascinating. The weekly meetings of the student investment club, whose members compete in an online investment game, rank among Juan’s favorite activities. Even losing $100,000 of pretend money and finishing next to last in his group hasn’t dampened Juan’s enthusiasm. He describes the ailing stock market with an optimism shaped by his youth and own experience: “You have to be confident in the systems that are there. Eventually, it will go back to being a boom.”
Here, as at all colleges, life often revolves around the future. Students have just finished unpacking, but they’re already being asked to sign up for housing for next year. During an orientation for transfer students, Juan made several friends who want to live together next year. They’ve decided to apply for a university apartment with three bedrooms. Juan is excited: The apartments are newer and nicer than the dorms. The friends could have their own living room and kitchen — no more sharing with an entire hall. Imagine the parties.
Juan pauses, remembering a detail. “If it all works out,” he says quietly, “if we’re all still here.”
Juan and his family came to the United States as vacationers in August 1990. Toting six suitcases of clothes and tourist visas, they flew into John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. But when the visas expired after six months, they stayed and eventually moved to Florida, where they filed an application for political asylum. The family of four — father Julio, mother Liliana, Juan and his older brother, Alejandro, or Alex — had lived a middle-class life in Colombia. Julio oversaw finances for a company that managed pensions for the government and other businesses. But, suddenly, he quit his job.
“My sons don’t know much about it, and I don’t want to go too deeply into it,” says Julio, 54, speaking in Spanish from Pereira, a mountain city in western Colombia. In the petition for asylum, the family says that one of Julio’s brothers, a niece and a nephew were murdered for political reasons. Fernando Rojas, the last lawyer who worked on the family’s case in Miami, says that Julio received threats from a guerrilla group because of his job. Rojas declined to give further details, saying that he still fears for Julio’s safety in Colombia.
During the 1980s and 1990s, civil war ravaged Colombia. Guerrillas and paramilitary forces fought for political power and control of the drug trade, and civilians sometimes were forced to take sides. Kidnappings, torture and killings were common. Two of Julio’s brothers had left during the 1980s and settled in Los Angeles and Miami. According to Juan, one uncle was granted political asylum; the other became a legal resident as a result of a 1986 amnesty bill signed by President Ronald Reagan.
Every year after the Gomezes’ arrival, they filed for and received work permits, which they were eligible for while the government considered whether to grant the family political asylum. Julio became a security guard. Liliana cleaned rooms at a Holiday Inn and later managed a restaurant kitchen. Julio’s mother, who arrived in 1991 and was added to their petition, also worked; she sold flowers as a street vendor. After a few years, Julio and Liliana started their own business renting chairs, tables and other equipment for parties.
Their asylum case should have been heard within months, but during the early 1990s, a long backlog stalled decisions. Years passed, and the Gomezes say they did not receive a court notice. They wondered about the delay but said they trusted the system.
Meanwhile, Juan and his brother became Americans in spirit, if not on paper. At age 3, Juan learned his colors in English first, not Spanish. One of his earliest memories is trick-or-treating on Halloween, dressed as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. He and Alex, who is just 14 months older and more like a twin than an older brother, played basketball and baseball in leagues at local parks. Alex became a star in football, not futbol.
As children, the brothers knew their parents often filed paperwork with lawyers, but they didn’t think much about their immigration status. Colombia was primarily a place in their parents’ memories, not their own. Liliana cooked lasagna and burgers as well as arepa bread and empanadas. They gathered to watch World Cup soccer with other Colombian families, but a more regular staple of entertainment was renting American movies, especially action flicks. His parents don’t speak English very well, but “explosions are understood in any language,” Juan says.
Even though Julio and Liliana could spare little time from their jobs, “we were very close,” says Alex, now 21. “Our parents always took care of us . . . My mother would work the night shift, but there would always be food on the plates, ready for us. “
In 1999, when Juan was in fourth grade, the family was summoned to a hearing at an immigration court in Miami. Julio and Liliana testified briefly, and the decision came just as quickly — the judge denied their application. On the quiet drive home, Juan remembers feeling sick and lying down in the car. His father reassured the family: They would try again.
To win political asylum, applicants need to prove that they have a well-founded fear of persecution on the basis of their race, religion, nationality, political opinion or membership in a family or other social group. Georgetown law professor Philip Schrag, who co-authored a 2007 study on asylum cases, says that the system suffers from inconsistency. There’s no checklist for what constitutes persecution, and unlike in criminal cases, there’s little forensic evidence. Most applicants aren’t able to call in possible witnesses, who live overseas. And the immigration courts are closed to the public, with records sealed.
“The judges have a great deal of discretion,” Schrag says. “There are surely some cases in which a person telling the truth wins asylum and others in which they don’t.”
Schrag’s study, published in the Stanford Law Review, analyzed 140,000 decisions in the nation’s busiest immigration courts from 2000 to 2004. It found wide disparities even among judges in the same court. For example, among Miami’s 22 judges, approval rates involving applicants from Colombia ranged from 5 percent to 88 percent. The Department of Justice, which oversees the courts, has criticized the study, saying that cases can’t be compared because each one is unique.
In 2000, the Gomez family’s appeal was rejected. Two years later, the next level of judges issued a denial on a second appeal. Still, the family didn’t give up. Julio and Liliana spent about $10,000 paying for lawyers.
On Nov. 25, 2003, the government made its final decision and sent a letter to the Gomezes. The family had 30 days to voluntarily leave the country.
The family considered going to Canada, but Julio and Liliana feared starting all over again in a place where they knew no one. Besides, what were the chances they would become legal there? They decided to stay in Miami. Maybe the government would forget about them, just as it had allowed their asylum application to languish for years.
The hope that they’d be forgotten wasn’t completely unfounded. One estimate from the Urban Institute puts the number of illegal immigrants here at 9.3 million. Faced with such a vast number, government officials have often said that criminals are the first priority for deportation. New responsibilities after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks also have stretched the immigration agency’s limited resources. None of the Gomezes had a criminal record, though Juan recalls his father fretting that it would be hard to renew his driver’s license without a legal work permit.
“Forgive me,” Liliana Gomez, 52, says now. But anyone in her situation, she believes, would have stayed despite the deportation order. Speaking in Spanish, she says that the family’s case for asylum was strong and believes their first lawyer mishandled it. Everything, she maintains, was done for their sons’ future: “I can’t imagine my sons in Colombia. They think like Americans, and it wouldn’t be fair to them, with their desire for educations.”
Juan, though, says he begged his parents to leave for Canada. At one point, he even told his classmates that he was leaving the country and collected addresses so he could send letters later. Friends laughed it off as another one of Juan’s practical jokes.
By law, public schools accept children without questioning their immigration status, so no one outside his family knew that Juan was now in the country illegally. After a few months, the threat of deportation became like a half-remembered item in the back of a closet. “I honestly didn’t think they would come,” Alex says. “I didn’t think they would get to it.”
Juan became comfortable enough to make fun of their situation. Once day, he came into Alex’s room and announced, “Immigration’s here.” Alex recalls panicking, but just for a minute. Juan couldn’t keep his face from breaking into laughter.
Soon, Juan became immersed in life at Miami Killian Senior High School. He was taking the most advanced classes and spent hours in his room studying. Classmates often asked him for help because he had a reputation for being patient and unpatronizing.
Juan, however, didn’t like asking for help himself. His family couldn’t afford a computer, but he didn’t want to borrow from friends. Instead, he would spend hours at the library, waiting for a free machine so he could type up his papers. His father, who had to drive him there, would sit patiently until he finished.
Juan aced every class except world history, where he earned a B. Friends and teachers figured he would end up as a CEO of a major company or — unaware that he hadn’t been born in the United States — maybe even the leader of the free world. Eric Krause, an economics teacher, nicknamed him “President Gomez.” Krause says that Juan is one of the best students ever to graduate from Killian.
But at the beginning of his senior year in 2006, Juan could no longer avoid the consequences of his immigration status. Nearly all colleges were closed to him. Most asked about an applicant’s residency situation. The biggest exceptions are community colleges, which usually have open enrollment policies. Undocumented teens often attend by paying the higher nonresident tuition. Alex, who had graduated from Killian the previous year, was studying at Miami Dade College and hoped to become a firefighter. The community college was a step down for a student of Juan’s caliber, but even if he could be accepted somewhere else, he couldn’t afford to go. On financial aid applications, one of the first questions was about citizenship.
At Killian, applying to colleges dominated the talk among seniors. His friend Scott couldn’t understand why Juan wasn’t applying to any of the top schools. Juan had always been the low-key, no-stress one in their group of high-achieving friends, but his nonchalant attitude about colleges was really grating on Scott. By the end of October, Scott, the super-organized student body president, had already completed his applications to Harvard, Duke and Washington University in St. Louis. Now he began to set deadlines for his friend.
Juan was ashamed to tell Scott the truth. So he filled out a few applications, to Duke, the University of Pennsylvania and Washington University. Scott began researching scholarships for him, which embarrassed Juan even more. He felt guilty for wasting his friend’s time.
Finally, during winter vacation, on a car ride home after playing video games, Juan leveled with Scott. He said he was here illegally. His family had exhausted their options in court, and they could be deported at any time.
Scott was in shock. He recalls that he drove his car over to the side of the road, parked and called to tell his girlfriend that he couldn’t hang out later that night. He started crying.
Scott says he didn’t know much about immigration politics, but he knew how he felt about Juan. “There’s no way my country should screw over other people like that,” Scott says. “I realized, here’s this kid who I’ve sweated with and worked next to all through high school, and he can’t go to college. His opportunities were severely limited just because of what his parents did. It really blew me away.”
As their senior year continued, Juan’s friends landed spots at top schools. Scott got into Harvard, his first choice. Two friends planned to attend Vanderbilt University and room together, and others were headed to Columbia University and the University of Virginia. Juan always congratulated his friends as soon as he found out about their acceptances. “He was surprisingly happy for everyone,” recalls Scott, now a sophomore at Harvard. “He wasn’t pessimistic about his own future.”
Juan was accepted into the honors program at Miami Dade College and told friends that he would make the most of it. There was nothing else he could do.
Shaking Juan awake, his father simply said, “Immigration’s here.” Car headlights shone through the windows. It was around 6 a.m. on July 25, 2007, nearly four years after the family had been ordered to leave.
Four men in dark uniforms and bulletproof vests gathered the family in the living room. The agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement allowed Juan’s grandmother to remain behind for the time being because of her age. As they handcuffed Julio and his sons, Liliana sobbed and screamed that they weren’t criminals. The boys were silent, stunned. Alex and his father were ordered into one car; Juan and his mother in the other. Liliana told Juan that he had his T-shirt on backward, but he shrugged. What did it matter now?
Juan had been allowed to keep his cellphone. Despite the handcuffs, he started dialing. He called Scott and told him the news. Scott hung up on him and tried to go back to sleep. He was supposed to pick up Juan later that morning to go to their jobs in a restaurant kitchen. He recalls being annoyed that Juan would pull a trick to get out of work.
A few minutes later, Juan called again, and Scott hung up again. After the next call, Scott realized his friend wasn’t kidding. He didn’t know what to do, but he started calling other friends.
Once the family arrived at the Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, they caught a break. Authorities told the Gomezes that they couldn’t be flown to Colombia immediately. The office had misplaced the family’s passports, which had been sent in years earlier for their case files. After a daylong wait, Julio was sent to a Miami immigration facility. Liliana stayed with her sons but was then separated into a women’s area. Juan and Alex were issued orange jumpsuits and led to a room with four other men.
The brothers were scared, not knowing what to expect. Alex remembers his mind flashing to TV cop shows that he’d seen, and he prepared to protect his brother. The other guys, though, just had questions and painful stories they wanted to share. They said they missed their families terribly; they asked about Juan and Alex. Did they have wives or kids?
Juan felt relieved. These guys were like them, just much older. “Nobody there was a criminal,” Juan says. “There was no fear in there; there was only sadness.”
Meanwhile, Scott was gathering friends at his home. They called lawyer after lawyer, all of whom advised them to say their goodbyes to Juan. Legally, Juan’s options were just about zero. Scott refused to give up. “I didn’t have anything to lose,” he says. “Juan was my friend — why would we not try? We might as well at least say that we gave it our best shot.”
Through the social networking site Facebook, Scott spread the word about Juan, emphasizing his academic record. Parents and teachers lent their support, giving names of anyone they knew with influence: lawyers, business leaders, news reporters.
A day after the Gomezes arrived at the detention center, lawyer Kelleen Corrigan was there to talk to a group of detained women about their rights during court proceedings. When she finished, one of the women shyly approached. It was Liliana. In tears, she told Corrigan about her sons, their school awards and hopes for higher education. Corrigan, who worked for the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, was intrigued, but she didn’t make any promises.
When Corrigan got back to her office, the center’s executive director, Cheryl Little, mentioned that a local business leader had asked her to look into the case of a family with an honors student. Later that day, Corrigan and Little heard a report on the news: A group of Killian high school students were trying to free their friend, Juan Gomez, from the Broward detention center.
Lawmakers get calls about cases like Juan’s family all the time. Most don’t make it past the receptionist.
In the eyes of the court, the Gomezes’ case was clear-cut. The family had knowingly violated a deportation order. The only way to stop deportation at this point is for a member of Congress to file a private bill on behalf of the individuals. The requests usually only delay deportation; the bills often never make it out of House and Senate subcommittees. Most legislators don’t like to deal with such bills. How can they explain the fairness of sponsoring one person, when hundreds, if not thousands, of other people are in the same situation?
Since 1996, Congress has approved only 36 private bills on immigration, according to the House Judiciary subcommittee on immigration. One of the successful cases was of a Louisiana couple who adopted a 16-year-old Sri Lankan girl, only to find out that federal law prohibits the immigration of kids adopted after their 16th birthday. Another involved an elderly Chinese woman whose daughter, a U.S. citizen, died of an illness 11 days before immigration officials were scheduled to grant the mother legal residency.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based think tank that favors stricter immigration controls, says lawmakers should focus on a full-scale overhaul of immigration law, rather than dealing with problems on a case-by-case basis. Krikorian says he’s sympathetic to Juan.
“Children often suffer from the consequences of their parents’ mistakes,” he says. Still, “you don’t get a pass from a violation of the law because it’s bad for your kid.”
A generation of undocumented children is coming of age, and lawmakers haven’t figured out how the offspring should be treated. Some states have considered whether to extend in-state college tuition benefits to illegal students; such proposals haven’t gotten very far in Maryland or Virginia. On the federal level, a bipartisan group of senators and representatives sponsored the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, or Dream, Act. (The act was originally introduced in the Senate by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in 2003.) If it had passed, the law would have allowed undocumented teens who grew up in this country to stay during and after earning a college degree or serving in the military.
One of the bill’s co-sponsors, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) heard about the Gomez family from media reports. He had never before sponsored a private bill on behalf of an immigrant, but he believed that the Gomez case personified the need for the Dream Act.
“These brothers are just exceptional kids,” the congressman says. “It was an awesome sight to see all those friends and neighbors here and lobbying with intensity, concern and love.”
Juan’s friends, too, realized that the Dream Act could be his ticket out of the detention center. They blitzed the e-mails and voice mails of senators and representatives from Florida. Scott created a lobbying group on Facebook, which grew to more than 2,642 members, many of whom had never met Juan.
But although the friends had managed to make Juan the talk of Miami, they knew the real answer lay in Washington. Facebook messages went out, asking friends of friends for places to crash in the District. Five days after Juan was arrested, Scott, nine classmates and Krause, the economics teacher, flew to Washington and started knocking on doors on Capitol Hill.
On the morning of Aug. 1, 2007, Juan, Alex and their father were summoned to a small, book-lined room in the detention center and asked to wait. Liliana soon joined them. None of the guards would tell them what was happening.
Juan says he was resigned to getting deported. The last seven days had exhausted him. Broward Transitional Center had minimum security, and the detainees were free to move around during the day, to play pool, work out and watch TV. But those niceties meant little to Juan. Until his father was transferred back to Broward, Juan had worried about him. He also missed his mother. Juan knew that Scott was leading an effort to get him out, but he wasn’t sure of its chances. Some at the center had languished in detention for months, even a couple of years. “I didn’t want to be like them,” Juan says. “I was like, just get me out of here. I didn’t care if I was in Colombia. I just wanted to be out.”
After an hour or so of waiting, the attorney his mother had met appeared. Corrigan was grinning.
Diaz-Balart had proposed a private bill in Congress that would grant permanent residency for Juan and Alex. That action bought the entire family a temporary reprieve. So now, the Gomezes were free to go home.
Julio and Liliana screamed and jumped up to embrace Corrigan. “Angel, you’re my angel,” Liliana told her.
When the Gomezes emerged from the detention facility in the late afternoon, the glare from the television cameras nearly blinded them. Friends, most of them in tears, ran toward the family. Scott wasn’t there; he was still in Washington. From the parking lot, Juan called him and engaged in a bit of trademark needling.
“What took you so long?” Juan demanded. Scott laughed; he was glad the stay in the detention center hadn’t changed Juan too much.
That night, the family ate a chicken dinner at a friend’s house, surrounded by dozens of well-wishers. The friend offered to let them stay in his spacious home for the night, knowing that reporters and gawkers might be outside the Gomez house. The Gomezes declined; they wanted to sleep in their own beds. They didn’t know how much longer they could do that.
“Hello, my love.” Liliana, speaking in Spanish, is calling out to Juan from his laptop. It is an October weekend, and Juan is sitting at his desk, on an online phone call with his parents. He has just celebrated his 20th birthday.
“We miss you, son. It’s hard to be here, especially on your birthday,” says his mother, who remembers that Juan was born so fair-skinned and fat that one nurse called him an American baby. Liliana, who now lives in her childhood home with Julio and eight other relatives, had never been separated from her son for more than a night before the detention center.
Juan tries to lighten the mood. He tells his parents that for his birthday dinner, he ate out with friends at a restaurant; he had a great burger. Later tonight, he’s going to a meeting of the student investment club. “So, Mom, what did you do this weekend?”
She doesn’t answer right away; the line crackles with static as Julio’s voice emerges from the speakers. “We really miss you,” he says.
“I know, Dad,” Juan assures him.
“We endure it, knowing you two are doing well there,” Julio says. “That gives us faith.”
His mother jumps in: “We’re very proud of you and Alex. You two are a great example, son. It’s hard to be without you.”
“I know, Mom,” Juan says. He doesn’t know how else to respond. Juan calls his parents every few days, and they occasionally send each other e-cards and photos. He still considers himself strongly connected to his parents. Yet often, there’s not that much to talk about: “They really have no concept of what American college life is like.”
After the Gomezes left the immigration detention center, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), a co-sponsor of the failed Dream Act, also filed a private bill on behalf of Juan and Alex for the Senate to consider. Dodd’s bill gave the brothers a much longer reprieve from deportation, allowing them to stay in the United States until this year. Nothing, however, could be done for Juan’s parents and grandmother. They sold household goods and most of the party rental equipment from their business to raise money for their new life in Colombia and the boys’ life on their own. During his parents’ frantic last week in Miami, Juan learned how to drive and took over their bank accounts. There was so much to do, they never sat down for a long farewell conversation.
On the morning of Oct. 30, 2007, the Gomezes arrived at Miami International Airport, where a mob of reporters greeted them. Grandmother Carmen, frail at 84, used a wheelchair. Juan’s face was stoic, and he said little. After the security checkpoint, the family requested that the media leave. They wanted to wait the final hour alone, without even their lawyers.
At the boarding gate, the five of them huddled in a circle, hugging each other, recalls Alex. Liliana could barely speak because of her tears. They were so engrossed in their moment together that they didn’t see the man with the television camera until he appeared next to them. Alex says he had never seen his brother so angry. Juan yelled at the man, “Can’t you have some respect?”
Precious moments were wasted; the call for boarding soon began. Even now, Juan says he cannot discuss that day: “I’m not emotionally ready.”
Shortly after their parents were deported, Juan and Alex moved to another rental house. Juan enrolled in Miami Dade College, devoting himself to studying and going to the gym. Once baby-faced and husky, he lost 30 pounds.
When he and Alex received their work permits, they got jobs busing tables at separate restaurants. Money was a constant worry; both had to pay nonresident tuition and cover the bills.
Nearly all of his high school friends had left for college, and Juan yearned to join them. Without telling his friends, parents or lawyers, Juan applied to Georgetown, just to see if he could get in. He knew he couldn’t afford to go, and colleges don’t grant much aid to international students, which is the category under which he would have to apply. Tuition, room and board at Georgetown runs close to $50,000 a year.
In his personal essay, Juan wrote about his detention, figuring that Georgetown would find out one way or another. He attached copies of his work permit and temporary stay documents. He doesn’t have a copy of the essay, but he says he described “a point in my life where I had lost everything” and how much stronger he’d become as a result.
Juan not only got into Georgetown; he won a scholarship. He remembers rereading the e-mail acceptance several times, certain that there was a mistake. He was ecstatic, but hesitant. The only close family member he had left in the country was Alex, and he worried about leaving his brother. The longest the brothers had ever been separated was a few days, when Alex went to Disney World with high school classmates. Alex would have to work harder to carry the $400 monthly rent and take just one class a semester. But Alex, like their parents, was immensely proud of Juan and urged him to go.
“I felt rejuvenated,” Juan says. “I had finally got into a school. Even if the financial aid hadn’t come through, I felt this showed I deserved to be there, at least.” Georgetown officials declined to comment for this story, even to talk about general immigration issues. A spokesman said that the school does not like to publicly discuss individual students.
Bette Quiat, Scott’s mother, took Juan to Georgetown and helped him settle in. As the two toured the campus and picked out bedding at Target, she remembers, the feeling was bittersweet. “I was sad that his mom and dad could not be there to share this pride and overwhelming sense of how great their son had done to get to this place,” Quiat says. “His determination to make it is so great.”
Juan’s room is Spartan: no TV, no posters, not even pictures of his family. He says he only wanted to bring what he needed, and, besides, he doesn’t have much. In one corner, gloves and pullovers spill out from a box. Parents of a friend sent them, worried that Juan didn’t have the proper clothes for his first winter outside of Miami. He’s been grateful for the help, but he feels guilty. Before Quiat paid the bill at Target, he wanted to replace some items with cheaper things.
In Colombia, Liliana laments that she cannot help her son. She couldn’t even afford to send him a birthday present. “Imagine how that feels for a mother,” she says.
The return to the country where she grew up has been shocking. She and Julio, “fat” in America, have dropped at least one clothing size. Almost all their friends from the old days are gone, either to another country or dead.
The political situation in Colombia has stabilized, but the economy is struggling. Unemployment rose to nearly 11 percent at the end of last year. Liliana and Julio have tried to restart their event and catering business but have been hired for only a few small gigs here and there. Even simple jobs have been elusive, Liliana says. An ice cream shop owner told her that she was looking for an employee, and she immediately volunteered herself. But the business owner wanted a teenage worker. “No one would believe the jobs I’ve been doing,” Liliana says. “I haven’t told my sons how things are here because I don’t want them to worry … It’s embarrassing.”
The family’s future is painful to contemplate. If Juan sees his parents again soon, it will be because he was deported. But winning U.S. residency could mean living apart for years. It’s a stark choice, but there’s no question for Juan and his parents about what he should do.
“I’m not going to give up and go back to Colombia after all they sacrificed for me,” Juan says. “I sort of see myself as completing the American dream that my parents weren’t able to.”
At Georgetown, it’s not hard to tell that Juan is a little different from other students. Unsolicited, he points to buildings on campus with all the enthusiasm of a tour guide. He even takes a visitor to his dorm’s kitchen and lounge, noting that the resident assistant, “a really nice guy,” bought pots and pans to share with everyone. In the dining hall, he says he can’t get enough of the great food, even the meatloaf that others avoid. In a neighborhood filled with high-priced boutiques, Juan notices that the Subway restaurant on campus doesn’t offer the $5 foot-long sandwich special.
Juan’s friends at Georgetown say he’s made them appreciate all the advantages they normally take for granted: their affluence, their parents, their citizenship. They learned he might be deported about a month into the semester. Juan says he told them he might not be around to share the university apartment they were applying for.
One friend, Mike Hayes, was incredulous. To him, Juan just didn’t seem like an illegal immigrant. “I’ve come across 25-year-old illegal aliens who come here to get a job and get some money and go home,” says Mike, a 19-year-old from suburban Philadelphia. “When I heard Juan’s story, it was so radically different from them. He wasn’t over here to make a buck. This was his home.”
John Mazzara, a 20-year-old from Connecticut, says that the news did not change their relationship. If anything, it made him prouder that Juan counted him as a friend. “Juan is more American than I am,” John says. In fact, he might be too American. When John needed help with his Spanish homework, Juan didn’t know all the answers.
Juan has become a tutor for another subject, too. Through friends of friends, undocumented students e-mail him, wanting to know how to apply to schools or find a lawyer. In the middle of finals week in December, another Georgetown student called Juan: His parents had been picked up by immigration agents. Juan spent a few hours in the student’s dorm room, trying to calm him down and answering his questions about what happens at a detention center. There’s not much that they can do for each other, but there’s the comfort of a common bond.
“I’m not alone in this,” says Juan, who finished his first semester with near-perfect grades, four A’s and one B-plus. Around the same time, Congress adjourned — without a Senate subcommittee taking action on the private bill that Dodd introduced on behalf of Juan and his brother. The bill on the House side also died in committee.
When Juan’s friends marched to Capitol Hill to plead his case, immigration was a hot issue. But now, the dismal state of the economy has superseded everything else. Nevertheless, Juan’s lawyers are lobbying Dodd to reintroduce his private bill in the Senate. If Dodd or another senator doesn’t, Juan and Alex will likely face a deportation order.
As Juan begins his second semester, many friends are already making plans for the summer. But Juan isn’t interviewing for internships like they are; he doesn’t know if he’ll still be here by then. He’s also not sure if he should apply for a $4,000 loan for the expenses his scholarship doesn’t cover. His uncle would have to co-sign for the loan, and Juan doesn’t want to stick him with the bill if he’s ordered to leave the United States.
Each week, the possibility of getting deported looms larger. Juan can no longer block it from his mind so easily. “If I have this deadline that’s going to come up in some form or another, it’s not like I can look that far ahead into the future,” he says.
For now, though, there are new classes to study for, basketball games to attend and a fresh start at the online investment game. In the midst of this now-familiar pace of student life, Juan finds himself stopping every once in a while and standing still. He can’t help but gaze in awe around the campus, just as he did on that first day.
Phuong Ly is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Magazine. She can be reached at email@example.com.