Jul. 20, 2005
Oscar Corona, Jaime Damian, Yuliana Huicochea and Luis Nava will go before Phoenix U.S. Immigration Judge John W. Richardson, who has twice granted them extensions.
But the four have exhausted most legal maneuvers, and Richardson warned his second extension, 10 months ago, would likely be the final one.
"I just don't know what I'm going to do if I'm forced to leave," said Huicochea, now 20. "I'm an American. This is the only country I've ever known. I can't even think about leaving it."
The case is being closely followed by national groups on both sides of the immigration divide for its possible impact on thousands of other students in similar situations.
The four were students at Wilson Charter High School in Phoenix competing in a 2002 international solar-powered boat competition in upstate New York when they were detained at the U.S.-Canada border while on a sightseeing trip to Niagara Falls. All had been illegally brought into the United States by their undocumented parents as children.
The plight of the students drew national attention to the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act.
First introduced in 2001, the bill would allow undocumented high school graduates brought here as minors and who've lived here for at least five years to apply for legal status.
It has failed to pass muster with legislators despite changes aimed to make it more palatable, including denying undocumented students federal education grants and placing them on an international student tracking system.
Supporters of the DREAM Act say it would help fix a flaw in the law that punishes students with the potential to succeed for mistakes committed by their parents.
Those who oppose the bill say it would reward parents for breaking the law and fear it would open the floodgates to broader amnesty efforts for undocumented immigrants.
"The Wilson Four are gifted kids with the potential to make solid contributions to our society," said Marianne Gonko, lawyer and director of Friendly House's immigration department. "They clearly exemplify why immigration laws need to be changed."
Last-ditch efforts to delay deportation include a deferred action request filed with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office and a private bill introduced July 12 by Congressman Ed Pastor. A rally today at 4 p.m. outside of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement office at 2035 N. Central Ave. will draw attention to both.
"We know he (Judge Richardson) said he wouldn't grant another extension," said Wilson Four attorney Judy Flanagan. "But we think he's sympathetic of the kids' situation and might consider Pastor's bill to grant them another extension. That's our hope anyway."
A companion bill has not been introduced in the Senate.
Some of those following the case say they doubt either measure will buy the Wilson Four more time because immigration officials rarely grant extensions, except for cases with extenuating circumstances, and few private bills to grant undocumented students relief now make it through Congress.
"They used to approve these a lot more. But they frown on them now," said Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for stricter immigration reform. "The feeling is that this is no way to address immigration law issues."
If asked to leave, Corona, Damian, Huicochea and Nava would have up to four months to voluntarily depart the country or be forcibly removed.
The group is part of more than 65,000 undocumented students who annually graduate from U.S. high schools, estimates the Urban Institute, an economic and social policy research group in Washington, D.C.
Arizona has about 161,000 English-language learners, and education officials estimate that half of those students are undocumented.
"Anyone who says they're not conflicted about these kids' situation is suspect," said Krikorian, who opposes the DREAM Act. "How could you not feel for them? But that doesn't mean the law shouldn't be enforced."