Late last month, U.S. Immigration Judge John W. Richardson was expected to announce deportation dates for the Wilson Four, the former Wilson Charter High School clique detained in upstate New York while on a 2002 field trip with other classmates. Smarty-pants students Oscar Corona, Jaime Damian, Yuliana Huicochea and Luis Nava were busted when they tried to cross the U.S.-Canadian border because, as toddlers, all four had been brought into the country illegally from Mexico by their undocumented parents.
Although Richardson threw out the former classmates' deportation cases on the grounds that they'd been "racially profiled" by border officials, anti-immigration zealots have appealed the case and are seeking the kids' deportation.
Now in their 20s, the four friends have become poster kids for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, which would allow undocumented high school graduates who've lived here for at least five years to apply for legal status. The bill has failed to pass muster with legislators, although its proponents swear it will amend flawed laws that punish students for their parents' mistakes. DREAM opponents contend that the law would reward criminals and would open a floodgate to undocumented immigrants.
Twenty-one-year-old Nava, who crammed to complete a four-year management degree from Arizona State University in just three years, has spent the past month of his life praying he'll get to stay in Phoenix and patiently explaining to the media the difference between the guys who hang out in front of Home Depot and people like himself, who know where to go to get a non-immigrant work visa when threatened with deportation.
New Times: Well, congratulations. You're allowed to be illegal.
Luis Nava: Yeah. I guess. [When] we walked into the courtroom, and my lawyer told me my deferred action was denied, I was out of hope, because that was our last chance. I was sure I was gonna [be deported].
NT: Do you worry that you'll be forever known as the poster boy for immigration reform? That people will be tracking you down every five years to do "Where are they now?" profiles?
Nava: I thought there'd be media for a week and then after that everyone forgets about you. I kind of liked that. Now, it seems like it's been a solid month of press and they won't leave me alone.
NT: But just think of the impact your case will have on other students in similar situations.
Nava: Hopefully, it will have an impact on the DREAM Act. It came close to passing last year, and it would have at least passed the Senate for sure. Hopefully it will be reintroduced next year, but some of the new bills that are coming out -- Senator [John] McCain's [immigration reform] bill -- only contain some parts of the DREAM Act, and they're saying, "Well, let's work on some of these larger immigration problems."
NT: In other words, the Legislature is dropping the ball. Those fuckers. Did you know, before 2002, that you were "undocumented"?
Nava: I wasn't sure about my legal status, but I knew I wasn't born in the United States. A week ago, my mom received her approval notice in the mail, right before my court date, but I was never sure about my own status.
NT: I've been trying to imagine what one would say to one's parents about such a thing. I guess it would be, "Hey, Mom, you made me illegal!"
Nava: It's definitely strange, especially because I have no recollection of any other country. I was 2! The only reason I know I'm from another country is because I've been told. And then they come tell me, "You may be deported," and it's, "Whoa!"
NT: Have you forgiven your folks for making you into an immigration statistic?
Nava: Oh, I never blamed them! They wanted a better life for me, and they did a hell of a job. I'm happy they took a step into the United States.
NT: But that jackass Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies, told reporters that your parents had committed a form of child abuse by putting you in this situation.
Nava: It's ridiculous. One of his other arguments is, "Why should we reward the parents for coming here illegally?" And [he says], "We're going to give this guy residency?" You have to look at people as individuals, you know? I did not commit a crime when I was 2 years old. That's what they're saying: "You're illegal. You committed a crime." When I was 2? Is that even possible? They're really, really stubborn, and they're definitely going to appeal the case, and I'm definitely worried about that. It gives us about 18 months [to prepare] for when they appeal.
NT: Immigration officials rarely grant extensions; you guys got four of them. Why?
Nava: Our lawyers are very good, but definitely the press gave the issue a little push. And we had a good immigrations judge. The first extension was to work on our trial, the second one was because the DREAM Act was pending. He denied our third extension, and that was our last one.
NT: You know, the DREAM Act sounds cool, but the changes made to it sort of gutted it. Now, the act would deny undocumented students federal education grants and place them on an international student tracking system. Like you're terrorists or something!
Nava: You do have to register for the same thing that a lot of, like, Arab people have to -- you know, they have to sign up for --
NT: Like when child molesters have to register their offenses?
Nava: Yeah. It's definitely kind of right wing.
NT: There's a lot of talk about changing immigration law, but what are we supposed to do, stop people at the border and say, "Well, we'll let you in if you've got a smart kid or two"?
Nava: I think the way the bill is written now, as long as you pass high school, you get conditional residency, pending your completion of a two-year degree at a university or two years in the military. A lot of people say, "Let's get these kids into the military and make them into real Americans." They're questioning our patriotism, and it's ridiculous.
NT: Making a soldier out of you will make you more of an American?
Nava: They think because we're born in another country we're less patriotic than the rest of you.
NT: There are tens of thousands of undocumented students in this country.
Nava: Sixty-five thousand that graduate every year from high school. To me, it's a human issue. You've got this umbrella of immigration, and they lump students together with coyotes and [day laborers], and it doesn't match up. They're like, "We have to set an example with these students that illegal immigration won't be tolerated. If we let them stay, it will open a floodgate [of illegal immigrants]." All they'll say is, "Illegal is illegal."
NT: Who's next -- undocumented gardeners? I hope not!
Nava: (Laughs.) It's easy to say, "He's illegal." But people immediately think of someone standing outside of Home Depot. And it's not always the case. A lot of my dad's friends own their own homes, stuff like that. I mean, there's 11 million undocumented immigrants here. Most of them are not standing outside of Home Depot.
NT: I hope not! There'd be no room to park!
Nava: They're a small percentage, but the right wing can point to them and say, "See? They're just standing around making a mess."
NT: What if you'd been forced to leave?
Nava: It's one of the reasons I had to graduate early, in three years -- I had to make sure that, even if I left, I still had accomplished some of my goals.
NT: Those 65,000 undocumented students -- will they be gotten after by immigration officials now?
Nava: Immigration doesn't look for them! Immigration only looks for people at the border, or people who've committed a crime. All these undocumented high school students who are here won't be touched by immigration.
NT: As long as they don't try to visit Canada.
Nava: Exactly. But all those 65,000 high school students, they won't have the opportunity to go to college, and their knowledge is going to be lost. They're going to have to get construction jobs or work in restaurants or hotels. It's a shame.
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NT: We're not a particularly welcoming country. What happens to you now?
Nava: Now that I have a four-year degree, I can [accept] a job offer. But I have to be able to prove that any other willing American can take that job.
NT: Wait. What? You have to prove that you're not getting special treatment as a new hire? That white guys were also candidates?
Nava: Yeah. Or that I have special skills that will especially qualify me for [the job]. But it's okay, because I do have a certificate in international business. And I do speak Spanish. I think that will help me out a little bit. It's ironic, huh?