Legal Limbo: Undocumented Students Eager for Congress to Act

Stein acknowledged detentions and deportations are a necessary "inconvenience" for the kids who have grown up in the U.S. and consider themselves culturally Americans, but he says their backgrounds in the U.S. will give them an "enormous competitive advantage" when they return to their home countries.

Lara says returning "home" isn't a realistic expectation.

"I have no idea what the national anthem of Argentina is … I don't know the customs there… I just know what people have told me about the place and what I've read online and in books," he said.

"I didn't make the choice [ to come here], but I guess I have the choice now that I'm older, and I want to stay here. I guess that's my decision, but there' no pardon, no nothing, you just have to get penalized for it. What really could I have done, really? What could I have changed?"

ICE Director: Lara's Case 'Compelling' But Broad Reform Needed

Lara was detained by ICE during a sting operation in February 2009 when he and a friend were installing home satellite dishes at homes on Fisher Island, near Miami.

"ICE came and started knocking on the window of our car… they said they needed to see documentation – a residency card," Lara said.

Lara was later released on bond after agreeing to leave the country voluntarily by July 2010.

In the most recent ABC News poll on immigration, 61 percent of Americans said they would support a program giving illegal immigrants now living in the United States the right to live here legally if they pay a fine and meet other requirements. 35 percent say they oppose.

But until such a process takes effect, thousands of cases like Lara's are pending around the country while thousands more wait, detained in ICE centers for deportation.

ICE director John Morton told ABC News the agency is continuing to pursue stringent enforcement programs against all illegal immigrants, placing highest priority on "criminal aliens," or those immigrants with criminal convictions.

But Lara and other students who have been "targeted" by ICE raids say the arrests and deportations are puzzling given what they see as more urgent homeland security priorities. "These are very tough cases, very hard cases where you have people who come here in violation of law – no question about it," said Morton when asked about Lara's detention. "But they also have fairly sensitive or compelling personal circumstances and we just have to deal with these right now on a case by case basis… [until we] come up with something that's a little more across the board thoughtful that deals with these underlying difficulties once and for all," he said.

The agency has deferred – and in a few cases, indefinitely held – deportations for humanitarian reasons or while Congress considers a private bill in an immigrant's name.

But even with a new lease on life in the U.S., Lara and an estimated 65,000 undocumented students who graduate from U.S. high schools each year are still unable to work legally here or chart a clear course for life as an adult.

"It's such a tremendous waste of resources," said immigration lawyer Andres Benach. "These kids are bright, they're ambitious… and to leave these kids out in the cold the minute they graduate from high school just doesn't seem like good public policy."

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