Legal Limbo: Undocumented Students Eager for Congress to Act

Walter Lara, 23, calls himself 'American' and hopes Congress will do the same.

December 14, 2009, 4:33 PM

Dec. 15, 2009— -- Ask 23 year-old Walter Lara about his future and he'll rifle off a short list of goals typical of an ambitious American honors student.

But for Lara – an Argentine immigrant who's lived illegally in the U.S. since the age of 3 – those dreams come with a big caveat: they only have the chance of coming true if Congress changes the law to allow Lara to continue his life in America.

"I wish I didn't have to be dreaming about becoming legalized; I wish I could continue on with my life," Lara told ABC News.

Lara is among a niche group of undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country illegally at a very young age by their parents and who have grown up almost entirely as "Americans."

Many have only recently discovered their status as illegal residents and now find themselves hitting walls in their pursuit of higher education and careers as doctors, lawyers and teachers – often despite impressive records of academic achievement and community service.

Lara, a graduate of Miami Central Senior High and Miami Dade Honors College, was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in February and ordered to leave the country by July, 2010.

"I always knew I was from a different place, but I didn't know I had problems with my documentation," said Lara, "I did all this [school] work, I did what was asked, and I wasn't able to continue…You're working for your future all the way up to this point but it just ends right there."

Today, Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., is introducing comprehensive immigration reform legislation that gives Lara a chance to hope.

"We have waited patiently for a workable solution to our immigration crisis to be taken up by this Congress and this president," said Gutierrez. "The time for waiting is over. This bill will be presented before Congress recesses for the holidays so that there is no excuse for inaction in the New Year."

The bill would create a path to citizenship for children and young adults who were brought to the country illegally by their parents and who have completed college and don't have criminal records. But the package likely faces a rocky road ahead after vitriolic debate derailed the last attempt at immigration reform in 2007.

Undocumented College Students Seek Change In Immigration Law

Without changes to the law, legal experts say, it's virtually impossible for Lara and others like him to rectify their legal standing, since their parents chose to raise them illegally inside the U.S. so many years ago.

"The law doesn't give them any options," Lara's immigration lawyer Andres Benach told ABC News. "Without family, without work options, they don't have any opportunities to regularize their status: the immigration law has been incredibly punitive against people who violated their status or entered illegally."

Benach, says without changes in the law, Lara would likely have to return to Argentina, wait 10 years, and then get in line for a visa which could take 10 years more just for the chance to continue the life he's started here.

That's just fine says anti-immigration activist and president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) Dan Stein.

"When you break the law as a parent, you're assuming a certain amount of risk and frequently your children are affected by that," Stein told ABC News. "That's what happened in this case."

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."

Allies For Undocumented "Dreamers" In Congress

Congresswoman Corrine Brown, D-Fla., a co-sponsor of the bill, told ABC News, the plight of undocumented college students first resonated with her when she met Lara and a group of his friends last year.

Brown drafted a private bill to grant Lara legal residency status, and while it's unlikely the bill will be passed, a legislative aide says, it may lend special treatment to Lara's case.

"I am extremely hopeful that the private bill I introduced will assist in 'staying' Walter Lara's deportation," Brown said in June.

"Clearly, Mr. Lara is a hard working, studious young man, who would like nothing more than to be given the chance to remain in the United States and become a productive member of our country."

Immigration opponents say people like Lara who broke the law – even if it was the parents' doing – should not receive favored treatment but be deported.

As the deadline for his departure in July 2010 looms, Lara is hopeful he'll get another deferral or, better yet, Congress will pass comprehensive immigration reform.

If that doesn't happen?

"Walter is not going to stay in violation of a removal order – that's what it would be come at that point. Walter will honor the law," Benach said. He'll return home to Argentina "if that's what's demanded of him."

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