The story itself starts simply enough: Boy spells. Boy spells well. Boy advances to national spelling bee.
But then the story takes a twist: Boy's parents get deported.
For Kunal Sah, a 13-year-old eighth grader at Green River High School who will participate this month for the second straight year in the Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee in Washington D.C., it's also his story, one that spells D-E-J-E-C-T-E-D.
Kunal's parents, Ken and Sarita Sah, were deported to India last July after living legally in the United States for 16 years.
The Sah's story starts in 1990. Like so many modern-day immigrants, Sah sailed to this country on the tide of education on a visa to pursue higher studies. When his education entry visa expired, Sah says, on the recommendation of a professor, he sought the counsel of an attorney in California to secure legal status and start working.
Sah says as a newcomer to the states he was unfamiliar with the immigration process and that he just wanted to start working. His attorney filed an application for both the Sahs, who, citing violence in their home province in India, were requesting political asylum. (The New York Times reported that Ken Sah's asylum application stated that he had been active in a group committed to Hindu nationalism and that he could be targeted by Muslims if he returned to India.)
"Within two weeks, I got the work permit and was happy to work here," Sah says in a phone interview from Delhi. "I had finished school and was ready to start surviving."
Their son, Kunal, was born in 1993 in California -- making him a U.S. citizen. In 1997, the family purchased a motel in Green River, Utah, a town in the eastern part of the state, with a population less than 1,000 people.
In 2000, the Sahs' asylum case came up for review and federal officials argued that their request for political asylum was no longer valid. Subsequent appeals and attempts at gaining lawful residency were denied. Sah also sought a visa as an entrepreneur-- since by this time he owned Green River's Ramada Inn and employed several members of the local community, but that application was also denied.
Their deportation date, July 7, 2006, came a little more than a month after Kunal's participation in last year's Scripps Spelling Bee. Kunal was eliminated in Round 2 for misspelling "parasyntheton."
But Kunal stayed on in the United States, living with an aunt and uncle in Green River who now manage the motel.
"I was shocked when they left," Kunal says. "It's hard staying on without them."
Kunal, a member of the spelling bee circuit since fourth grade, is staying for now, eager to escape the policy debate that plagues his middle school existence and spell his way into happier days. When his parents were here, they helped him prepare for the bee, he says. Now, he practices "mostly by myself," sometimes studying words with his aunt and uncle, or with friends online.
Dharm Chandra Prasad, Kunal's uncle, says the family "doesn't know how they can sort through this thing." He defends his brother Ken's integrity in the immigration process, saying he was "misguided" by the original attorney who filed his application in the early 1990s.
He says 13-year-old Kunal "is mad" about the situation the family finds itself in -- snared in a mess.