Saturday, June 25, 2011

Teens stand up to deportations (The Tennessean)

Teens stand up to deportations
Plight of student stopped for speeding propels cause
4:21 AM, Jun. 25, 2011

Written by
Chris Echegaray | The Tennessean

Mercedes Gonzalez was stopped for speeding — going 48 mph in a 40 mph zone — several days before her Overton High School graduation in May.

Because she did not have a driver’s license, the 18-year-old girl was detained and screened for deportation.

Gonzalez, who was born in Mexico and moved here when she was 11, was released on her own recognizance. She will appear in immigration court, but no date has been set. She did not want to comment on the case.

Nationwide, students — both documented and undocumented — have launched a youth movement to persuade the federal government to change its immigration policies and help children like Gonzalez who were brought to the United States illegally. The students have initiated letter-writing campaigns and lobbied for support through Internet blogs and social media. A rally is planned at the Georgia State Capitol on Tuesday.

“The undocumented student movement is, perhaps, the most impressive contemporary social movement in the U.S.,” said University of Washington professor Roberto Gonzales, who studies undocumented youth’s transition to adulthood. “Largely, through their own efforts, students have led coordinated national efforts to fight deportations and pressure elected officials to pay attention to them.”

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton released a memo telling staff to use “prosecutorial discretion” and prioritize the cases. Some deportation cases get deferred, which means immigration officials set them aside indefinitely.

Mercedes Gonzalez’s lawyers have asked federal agents to drop her case. Even if they do she will still be in legal limbo. Agents may drop deportation proceedings, but that simply puts undocumented immigrants right back in an illegal status waiting for the next traffic stop.

Generally speaking, there is no path to legal citizenship or lawful residency if an immigrant came into the country illegally unless he marries a U.S. citizen, said Nashville immigration attorney Elliott Ozment. Even then, the illegal immigrant would have to leave the country first and receive approval to re-enter.

When deportation proceedings are deferred, the immigrant gets an employment card that allows him to get a job, a driver’s license and a Social Security number, but he is “at the mercy of ICE, and they can revoke that at any time. It’s not anything you’re entitled to, and it doesn’t give you a right to stay here,” Ozment said. “That’s the whole reason passage of the DREAM Act is so necessary.”

The DREAM Act would provide a path for children brought here illegally with no say in the matter to become citizens by going to college or joining the military.

287(g) checks status

When Gonzalez was stopped and could not produce a driver’s license, a Metro police officer asked her for other forms of identification, records show. She didn’t have any.

Under a program named 287(g), Davidson County deputies run all foreign-born inmates through an immigration database and hold them for possible deportation.

A review of 287(g) data shows six 18-year-olds in Tennessee are facing deportation this year, stemming from driving without a license. Last year, 22 teens faced deportation for the same infraction.

Overall, there were about 1,500 people under the age of 21, charged with felonies and misdemeanors, facing deportation since the program started in Davidson County in 2007. Juveniles are not checked for immigration status in Davidson County unless they are booked into the adult jail.

In some cases, the teenagers do not realize they are here illegally until their late teens when they go for jobs or driver’s licenses or want to go to college, Gonzales said.

Supporters have begun blogging about Gonzalez and asking for signatures on a petition at United We Dream, a national youth-led organization that seeks equal access to higher education, regardless of immigration status.

The Rev. Jay Vorhees, of Old Hickory United Methodist Church in Nashville, blogged about Gonzalez’s plight.

“I don’t think folks are aware of this issue with students,” he said. “There is a lot of perceptions of people who cross the border. For the most part, these students have grown up here in the states in our midst. Kids, in Mercedes’ case, are getting arrested for what the rest of us would be a normal ticket.’’

Parents are to blame for bringing them to the country illegally, said D.A. King, president of Georgia’s Dustin Inman Society, an organization that favors stricter immigration laws.

“Should they be deported according to the law? Yes,” King said.

But King said if there were satisfactory legislation to help these students, he would probably support it.

“These students have grown up here and are Tennesseans through and through with Southern accents,” said Amelia Post, of Tennessee Immigration and Refugee Rights Coalition, who helps students coordinate their efforts.

Success story

Locally, students were successful in getting a deferment and stopping the deportation of Manolo Lem, who moved here when he was 2. His Chinese parents brought him from Venezuela.

Lem, 21 at the time, had just graduated from Middle Tennessee State University when federal agents appeared at his door.

Students circulated petitions to keep Lem from being deported.

“I had a lot of support,” said Lem, 24. “Without that, I don’t think I would’ve been able to stay.’’

In a worst-case scenario, his family could have been split up across three continents. His brother was born here and could stay, but Manolo could have been sent back to Venezuela and his parents back to China.

Arely Bravo, 18, a senior at Overton High School, wants the deportation of students to end.

“So many students work hard in school and want to participate,” she said. “To have that taken away from you in minutes is unfair.”

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