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Raised in the U.S., But Still Illegal

How should the U.S. treat a million young people who were brought here illegally as children?

By Julia Preston

Rigoberto Padilla was an honors student at Harold Washington College in Chicago when he was arrested in January 2009 after running a red light. But Padilla soon had a much bigger problem on his hands: Because his parents had brought him to the U.S. from Mexico illegally when he was six years old, Padilla, now 21, faced deportation to a country he hardly knew.

For many years, the United States has been wrestling with its immigration policies, and how to handle the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already here.

But as Padilla's case highlights, there's a subset of illegal immigrants who elicit some sympathy even from staunch opponents of immigration: those who were brought to the U.S. illegally when they were children. More than 1 million young people fit this description, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

And despite the risk that speaking out might result in their deportation, these young people, many of them students, are now taking the lead in pushing for immigration reform.

In January, four immigrant students at Miami Dade College began a four-month walk from Miami to Washington, D.C., to protest the lack of action on legislation granting legal status to illegal immigrants.

They say they have a "deep desire and need for complete citizenship" after reaching dead-ends in school or work because of their lack of legal status. The protesters include Carlos Roa, 22, who was 2 when his parents brought him here from Venezuela, and Felipe Matos, 23, who was sent from Brazil by his mother when he was 14.

Matos, a former student government president at Miami Dade, was accepted by Duke University in North Carolina but was unable to attend because he couldn't apply for financial aid. Trained as a teacher, he hasn't been able to accept a job because he doesn't have a valid Social Security number.

The marchers are pushing for passage of legislation known as the Dream Act. It would provide illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. when they were under 16 and graduate from American high schools with a conditional path to citizenship if they agree to spend two years in college or do military service.

The idea behind the Dream Act is that the U.S. should assimilate, rather than expel, dedicated young people who are not at fault for their illegal status.

"Maybe our parents feel like immigrants, but we feel like Americans because we have been raised here on American values," says Carlos Saavedra, national coordinator of United We Dream, a network of current and former students.

"Then we go to college and we find out we are rejected by the American system. But we are not willing to accept that answer," says Saavedra, 23, a Peruvian who lived here illegally until he gained legal status two years ago.

Not Eligible for Financial Aid

In 2008, about 65,000 illegal immigrants graduated from American high schools, but only 5 percent went on to college, according to Roberto G. Gonzales, a professor at the University of Washington.

Many fear that applying to college will expose them and their families to deportation. But cost is likely the biggest barrier: Illegal immigrants aren't eligible for federal financial aid, and only 10 states extend cheaper in-state tuition to illegal students who attended in-state high schools.

President Obama vowed to push for broad immigration reform this year—something along the lines of the overhaul Congress failed to pass in 2007, with increased border security and a route to legal status for illegal immigrants.

But many lawmakers remain opposed to a huge legalization program for illegal immigrants when so many Americans are out of work. "Allowing millions of illegal immigrants to stay and take jobs away from citizens and legal immigrants is like giving a burglar a key to the house," says Congressman Lamar Smith, a Republican from Texas.

But there may be more support for a measure that focuses on a path to legalization for young people who are not to blame for their illegal status—like the Dream Act. In Padilla's case, attempts to deport him generated so much controversy that immigration officials agreed in December to delay his deportation for a year.

Meanwhile, the students walking from Miami to Washington say their exposure to immigration agents on the walk is not much greater than what they face in their daily lives.

"We are aware of the risk," Matos says. "We are risking our future because our present is unbearable."

(The New York Times Upfront, Vol. 142, March 15, 2010)