July 7, 2008

Dallas-area students cling to American dream

03:32 PM CDT on Monday, July 7, 2008
By STELLA M. CHÁVEZ schavez@dallasnews.com

Cristina Gamez quotes Albert Einstein, plays the piano and knows basic Japanese. Monica Ibarra Rodriguez enjoys Guitar Hero and plans to one day work as a substance abuse counselor. Her cousin, Jose de Jesus Ibarra, wants to be a mechanical engineer.

The Dallas-area young adults are typical of many college-age students – full of hopes and plans for the future. But all three are living in the country illegally and last year became subjects of deportation proceedings.
The students recently learned that U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, has taken up their cause. On June 20, Ms. Johnson filed a private bill that seeks to keep them from being deported.

In the absence of comprehensive immigration legislation, private immigration bills are sometimes a measure of last resort for immigrants trying to remain in the country. Such legislation names specific individuals and is intended only for them.

In this case, all three were brought to the U.S. from Mexico many years ago by their parents.

"That time was running out, and I didn't feel like I could keep waiting," said Ms. Johnson. "It [the bill] might not pass, but at least it buys us some time."

Ira Mehlman, media director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said exceptions should not be made for children, even if they had no choice in coming here.

"It's simply a bad precedent to set," Mr. Mehlman said. "While we certainly don't take any pleasure in seeing the kids harmed, we as a society hold the parents responsible. Children are not human shields. Unfortunately, this was a situation created by the parents, and there are consequences to breaking the law and those consequences affect your family."

Ms. Johnson's measure comes 10 days after U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., filed a private bill to keep an Armenian high school student from being deported.

The bills have several hurdles to clear. They must go through committee hearings and pass both the House and Senate before being signed into law by the president. Few have been enacted.

Ms. Johnson said she's realistic about her bill's odds.

"I think it's a long shot, but I think once we have a hearing and people hear the real story, there's a possibility we might have the votes," she said.

Immigrant proponents have sought a remedy for children of illegal immigrants in the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, which would grant legal status to illegal immigrants who graduated from a U.S. high school and attended college or served in the military. But last fall, the bill failed in the Senate.

The bill's fate was especially disappointing for the Ibarras, who traveled to Washington for the vote and met with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's staff. She supported the bill.

Sen. John Cornyn opposed it and refused to meet with the family because they were in the country illegally, he said at the time.

Ms. Gamez, now 18, was 5 when she came to the United States, but she could tell the stark contrast between her native country and America.
"For one thing, everybody has shoes," she recalled noticing. "Everyone is nicely dressed."

Her parents initially intended to return home, but decided they'd lead a better life here, she said.

Problems arose last year when she racked up numerous school absences. That landed her in truancy court. There, an officer asked her if she was a U.S. citizen, which led to court hearings and into the offices of immigration attorney Liz Cedillo-Pereira.

The Ibarras, both 19, were caught at a party on senior skip day. During her stay in a detention facility, all Ms. Ibarra Rodriguez could think about was graduation.

"I just wanted to make my family proud ... that I didn't waste my time going to school for nothing," she said, crying.

Ms. Ibarra Rodriguez, who is enrolled in a local community college, said Ms. Johnson's bill gives her hope, but she remains worried.
She said Mexico is a foreign place to her.

Ms. Cedillo-Pereira, who is representing all three students, said they are good students who want to finish college and become legal working residents.

"Once we're able to seek a more comprehensive solution, we won't have to seek more remedies of last resort," she said.
Larry James, president and CEO of Central Dallas Ministries, said he supports the students.

"We're really grateful beyond words, but at the same time we recognize that this is not the way to handle immigration," Mr. James said. "We're going to fight to see that they get to stay."

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