Wednesday, May 25, 2011

University's student leader in immigration limbo (San Antonio Express-News)

University's student leader in immigration limbo
By Lynn Brezosky

Updated 03:51 a.m., Wednesday, May 25, 2011

BROWNSVILLE — When University of Texas at Brownsville student government association President Jose Arturo Guerra, 21, faces an immigration judge today, he'll be hoping his lawyer can buy him time to graduate.

Chances are just as likely he'll find himself with a one-way ticket out of the country, to Ciudad Victoria, Mexico, where he has a father living with a wife and family he barely knows.

But Guerra's striving for degrees in management and international business — and the sentiment that has spurred some in Congress to push several failed versions of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act — might work in his favor.

In a pattern noted and decried by congressional Republicans as a de facto amnesty, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement has refrained from deporting high-achieving students to birth countries they barely know.

Those who oppose the DREAM Act, which would give students brought to the United States illegally as children a path to citizenship, say Guerra falls into a gray area that should give its proponents pause. He was 15 the last time he snuck across the border, not an infant or toddler.

And even some who support the measure say dropping or delaying cases only keeps the students in limbo.

“They can be removed at any time,” said Lee Teran, a law professor at St. Mary's University. “ICE can give it, and they can take it away. ... It sounds like it's in the judge's lap, but it's really not. It's in ICE's.”

“Every year at this time of year we get calls from counselors saying, ‘How can I get this kid to college? How can I get him a scholarship? He's the valedictorian. Why can't you help him?'” she said.

An ICE spokeswoman said she could not comment on pending litigation.

A graduate of Brownsville's Pace High School, Guerra qualified for a full scholarship at UT-Brownsville.

Immigration status wasn't talked about in a high school about five miles from the border, though it stung when he won an accounting competition but couldn't compete in the finals for fear of immigration checks on the way to Austin.

It looms as more of an issue when he graduates ineligible to work in the United States.

The DREAM Act version introduced in the Senate last fall, where it died after a House version passed, called for legal residency for unauthorized immigrants who have completed two years of college or military service, provided they were brought to the country before age 16, are under 35 and have no criminal record.

“How do you prove when you entered the country without anybody noticing?” said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which lobbied against the Act.

“It was so susceptible to fraud that it would have encompassed far more people than anybody would have possibly estimated.”

Proponents said the senators who rejected it, including Texas Republicans Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, sacrificed the hopes of some of their constituencies' best and brightest to appease their conservative voter base.

The act has already been refiled, but with a Republican-controlled House, it has even dimmer chances this time.

Yet the debate has brought students like Guerra out of the woodwork, and in case after case the students have been allowed to stay.

Guerra's sisters and mother had entered the United States on visas and with his mother's remarriage to a U.S. citizen were able to get papers. He was not, and the act of trying exposed his illegal status by December.

He'd first come across in 2003, lawyer Jaime Diez said, on a visitor visa that expired in 2005. He went back to see his father in Mexico, who'd promised to help him renew his visa but reneged. He decided to sneak across. The first time he was caught. The second time he was not.

According to Diez, the case comes down to allegations that Guerra claimed to be a U.S. citizen during that first failed attempt, which could forever keep him from immigrating to the United States. Diez contends that as a minor Guerra could not have declared himself a citizen.

“You cannot buy a car. You cannot sign a contract,” he said. “For them to say that someone that is 15 can do something that the whole state of Texas would not recognize is crazy.”

Guerra has been gathering support.

“The plight of these bright, young students that are prepared to become productive contributors to our society has become a human tragedy,” UT-Brownsville President Juliet Garcia wrote when asked about the case.

Roy Beck, executive director of the immigration reduction group Numbers USA, said he sympathized with Guerra but felt “you can't create policy based on individuals.”

Guerra, he said, “will be a tremendous asset to the Mexican people.”

“He's bright, he's been allowed to get his education in the United States, he's benefited from the taxpayer education and high school,” Beck said.

Begging to differ is Guerra himself, who thinks he can “make a difference” in the United States.

“I don't see why they would educate people here in the United States and spend like thousands and thousands of dollars and then send just them back,” he said.

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