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Legal Limbo: Undocumented Students Eager for Congress to Act

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

ByABC News
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.