Aug. 3, 2010 -- Rigoberto Padilla has spent the past 16 years in the United States trying to avoid trouble with the law. The undocumented Mexican immigrant, 22, grew up in Chicago, attends college and dreams of being an attorney.
But on a cold January night last year, Padilla's streak of good behavior came to an abrupt end after what he calls "one serious mistake": drinking under age and then getting behind the wheel.
"I was watching the American Football Conference championship game with some friends and I drank a couple beers," he said. "I happened to have my friend driving my car. ... He lived a few blocks away from me, so he got out and I just had to drive the next few blocks."
Padilla says when he failed to make a complete stop at an intersection, a police officer pulled him over and asked for his driver's license and registration. He possessed neither since he is living in the United States illegally.
"She asked if I had drank, I said, 'Yes, a couple beers,' and that triggered my arrest," said the soft-spoken Padilla, who faced a misdemeanor charge, fine and supervised release.
The episode also caught the attention of federal immigration authorities who fast-tracked him for removal from the United States.
While Padilla did not cause any damage in the incident, which officials privately described as "minor," some critics of illegal immigration say unlicensed, uninsured immigrant drivers are making U.S. roads less safe.
It's "the drivers of cars with illegals in it that are intentionally causing accidents on the freeway," Arizona Sen. John McCain said in April.
"Illegal immigrants are driving without insurance, and it could cost you thousands of dollars" if they hit you, said William Gheen of the conservative Americans for Legal Immigration, referring to the fact that many drive uninsured.
Alleged broad links between illegal immigration and highway safety are largely unsubstantiated, however.
"Intuitively, it makes sense in that you have people that don't take driver's education," said Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors stricter controls on immigration. "Those claims are not totally unfounded. But there is no data on illegal immigrants and highway safety or traffic accidents."
Are Illegal Immigrant Drivers a Safety Hazard?
Representatives from the Auto Insurance Association, Insurance Information Institute and Insurance Institute for Highway Safety said their organizations have found no evidence that illegal immigrants who drive have had an impact on the cost of auto insurance or on accident rates. A sampling of state highway patrol agencies, including the California Highway Patrol, found local law enforcement also does not track such data.
Padilla, who has lived in the United States since he was 6 years old, said he has an otherwise clean driving record and recognizes the seriousness of his actions. But he hopes one misdemeanor doesn't overshadow the good moral character he has displayed throughout his life.
"It was a serious mistake," he said of the DUI. "At the same time, I have done so much in this country: I have excelled, I'm an honor-roll student, I've been involved with community service, and to be defined by one mistake does not do justice to who I am."
Padilla, the middle child of five, came to the United States from Jalisco, Mexico, with his parents. He graduated high school and is currently a senior at the University of Illinois-Chicago.
In December, Immigration and Customs Enforcement granted a one-year stay on Padilla's deportation after members of the Chicago City Council, students, university professors and religious leaders rallied around Padilla with an intensive campaign to keep him in the country.
Advocates inundated Department of Homeland Security offices with faxes and letters on his behalf, and U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., even introduced a private bill to grant Padilla relief.
"ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] uses its discretion on a case-by-case basis, as appropriate, and has the authority to grant a deferral of a removal action based upon the merits of an individual's case and a review of specific facts," Department of Homeland Security spokesman Matt Chandler said in a said statement on Padilla's case.
Padilla faces a hearing before an immigration judge on his deferred deportation in December.