Return to Sender: The Feds, Fueled by Local Anti-Immigration Hostility, Are Draining Talented Undocumented Youth into Mexico | News | Phoenix | Phoenix New Times | The Leading Independent News Source in Phoenix, Arizona

Return to Sender: The Feds, Fueled by Local Anti-Immigration Hostility, Are Draining Talented Undocumented Youth into Mexico

Twice a week, Teresa has a nightmare. It is almost always the same. She and her husband, Michael, are driving home in their gray Chevy pickup, sleepy and content after a long day with family. It is a cool, clear night. Their chatty 2-year-old daughter, Adrianna, is buckled snugly into...
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Twice a week, Teresa has a nightmare.

It is almost always the same. She and her husband, Michael, are driving home in their gray Chevy pickup, sleepy and content after a long day with family. It is a cool, clear night. Their chatty 2-year-old daughter, Adrianna, is buckled snugly into her car seat. Teresa's husband speeds up as they approach the highway on-ramp, narrowly cutting off another car. There is the wailing of a siren, the flashing of red and blue lights. Her heart begins to thump as her husband pulls over onto the gravelly shoulder.

A police officer ambles up to the car window. He is the tallest man she has ever seen — pale, with dark hair, and opaque aviator glasses. She cannot see his eyes, just her own frightened expression, and her husband's boyish face reflected back at her. Her husband rolls down the window, and the officer asks him for his driver's license in a flat, uninflected voice. Then he asks for her identification.

She does not have it, of course, though she frantically searches through her daughter's diaper bag. She tries to explain her situation: "I've lived here my entire life. I don't even remember Mexico!" But he acts as if he cannot hear her. The police officer puts her in the backseat of the patrol car, gets into the driver's side, and starts the engine. She can hear her daughter crying for her as the police cruiser begins to pull away. The last thing she sees is her husband, looking angry and helpless. A terrifying thought snakes through her mind and sticks: What if I never see them again?

Teresa wakes up, sobbing. She reflexively reaches out — there's her small daughter curled up beside her. Her husband is stretched out on the other side of the king-size bed, breathing deeply. She's safe in the roomy four-bedroom South Phoenix home they share with her husband's parents and brother. She stares at the ceiling, willing herself to go back to sleep.

Teresa and her husband do not talk much about her nightmares. They are much too possible. Teresa is an illegal immigrant, brought to the United States by her mother when she was a baby. Teresa did not even know she was here illegally until she was 13 years old — she found out when an application to volunteer at a hospital required a Social Security number. Until then, she thought of herself as a normal American kid — an honor roll student who preferred American football to soccer and dreamed of becoming a nurse.

South Phoenix is the only home the young mother has ever known. Her American husband doesn't speak Spanish. If she were deported to Mexico — where she has no friends or family — she does not know what she would do. So she refuses to take risks. She does not drive, cannot legally work. Mostly, she stays home with her daughter. She would still love to become a nurse, but for now it is just a dream. Even if she found a way to pay for school, no one would want to hire her.

"It's like you're not from Mexico, but you're not from here, either," Teresa says while sitting at her family's kitchen table.

"If I go back to Mexico, what am I going back to?" Her glance lingers on her daughter, who is intent on fishing a brightly wrapped piece of hard candy out of a bowl sitting on the marbled kitchen counter, and she smiles tightly. "I have no family there. It's like you're country-less. You're not from over there. You're not from here. You're stuck somewhere in the middle, and you don't belong anywhere."

There are thousands of people in Arizona with stories like Teresa's.

Arizona is the toughest state in the country for kids who are illegal immigrants.

The past four years have been particularly brutal for undocumented immigrants in Arizona — voters passed Proposition 300 in 2006, prohibiting undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition. A year later, the Legal Arizona Worker's Act cracked down on employers who hire illegal immigrants. Undocumented workers cannot get driver's licenses. In Phoenix, many — like Teresa — do not like to leave their homes, afraid they will be targeted in an immigration sweep by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. Just a few months ago, the Arizona Legislature passed House Bill 2008, requiring government agencies to turn over the names of illegal immigrants who apply for state benefits to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation. Now, many undocumented parents are too scared to apply for the benefits to which their American-citizen children are entitled.

There is a story Teresa read in a newspaper a few months ago that she thinks about often: A distraught man walks into a 7-Eleven with his two sons, a 4-year-old and a toddler. He holds the baby in one arm and a gun in his other hand. With no explanation, he shoots the clerk dead.

It may not seem as though the scenario has much to do with Teresa's situation. But to Teresa, it is the perfect metaphor.

"Those poor kids were probably traumatized," she says. "When they grow up, will we prosecute them for murder? Will we put them away for life because their father decided to shoot a man?"

Teresa's mother brought her illegally into the country when she was just a baby. Still, Teresa is legally culpable for entering illegally — even though she has lived here her entire life and had no say in how she entered.

Teresa cannot get a driver's license. She cannot legally work. She is hard-pressed to afford out-of-state tuition required of undocumented students, so higher education is not an option. Now that she is an adult, she has discovered (after consulting 10 immigration lawyers) that it is unlikely she will ever be able to legitimize her status — even though she is married to an American citizen and has an American-citizen daughter.

It is a legal catch-22 that is nearly impossible to avoid.

According to the PEW Hispanic Center, about 15 percent of all undocumented immigrants in the United States are children — close to 1.8 million people. Some of them, like Teresa, do not remember any country other than the United States. No one knows for sure how many of these kids are in Arizona (and a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Plyer vs. Doe, prohibits schools from asking), but it is safe to say there are thousands. Allan Cameron, a former computer-science teacher at Carl Hayden High School, estimated in 2007 testimony before Congress that as many as 80 percent of the kids he taught were illegal immigrants. The non-partisan PEW Hispanic Center estimates that about 65,000 undocumented students graduate from American high schools each year. Some even graduate from college.

Then they hit a wall and become unable to legally work or participate in society.

Legislation called the DREAM Act was introduced again this year in Congress that would provide a conditional pathway to citizenship for some undocumented immigrant kids. Unless it passes, most will never have the opportunity to legally live or work in the country they have known most of their lives. For them, time is running out.

For others, it is already too late.

Virginia Gutierrez was a straight-A student who graduated with honors from North High School with a 4.2 grade-point average, securing multiple private scholarships to ASU. Her dream was to be a doctor. Instead, she was stopped for a broken taillight and deported to Mexico in 2007, before she was able to start college. Last her friends heard, she was living with her grandmother in Chihuahua, looking for work. Her crime? Entering the United States illegally when she was 9 years old.

After coming to this country with his parents as a teenager, Joe Arvizu made it through three years at North High before he was deported. He had been an award-winning ROTC cadet. Though not a citizen, he was patriotic — his dream was to enter the military to serve this country. Turns out this country did not want him. A trip to the emergency room revealed that he had leukemia. Because he was undocumented and had no health insurance, St. Joseph's Hospital deported him to Mexico. Within months, he was dead. Had he been treated in an American hospital, his chance of recovery would have been 80 percent.

The famous "Wilson Four" were high-achieving undocumented students from Wilson Charter High School in downtown Phoenix. In 2002, while competing at a prestigious, international solar-powered boat competition in New York, they were detained after attempting to see Niagara Falls from the Canadian side. They narrowly avoided deportation when a federal judge tossed out the case, ruling that they were racially profiled. All four had entered the country illegally when they were toddlers.

Manuel Espinoza Vasquez was a junior at ASU when he was pulled over for making an illegal right turn. A star student, he wanted to go to law school. Instead, he found himself navigating deportation proceedings. His case is currently in appeals court. If he is refused a waiver, he will be deported to a country he has not lived in since he was 3 years old.

"The more you try to do the right thing, the more doors close," says Teresa. "If you don't want to break any laws — if you want to do everything by the book — you can't do anything. You feel so helpless."

Karla, 22, is nervous as she drives her black Nissan through Magdalena, Mexico.

The residential roads are an unpaved mess of potholes and rust-colored dust, and she is having trouble remembering the location of her husband's house. She adjusts the rearview mirror, glancing at the brightly colored cinderblock homes haphazardly built halfway up the nearby hills.

Her 15-month-old daughter, Samy, seated in a pink velveteen car seat behind her, begins to fuss. The almost five-hour drive from Phoenix to Magdalena is a long trek for a toddler.

Karla tries to soothe her. "We're almost there, Samy. We're going to see Papi!"

Her voice is heavy from lack of sleep. It is the day before Thanksgiving and Karla has been awake since 3:30 a.m., preparing for the trip. In the trunk, she has packed a small, blue cooler with thick slices of turkey, a can of corn, and frozen mashed potatoes. Bundles of warm blankets, clothes, and a box containing her husband's engineering textbooks from college sit on the floor of the backseat. The trip is one she has both anticipated and dreaded — she misses her husband but hates driving through Mexico.

She sighs, obviously relieved, when she sees Oscar, standing in front of a small brick duplex surrounded by scrubby desert shrubs, pebbles, and red dust. Tall and lean, her husband is dressed casually in a loose-fitting black sweatshirt, blue jeans, and dusty, brown leather boots. A broad smile lights his face when he recognizes the car, smoothing out worry lines that make him seem older than his 23 years.

This will be the first time he has seen his daughter in nearly two months. He picks her up, planting a kiss on her soft crown of fluffy, black hair, and she begins to cry. Oscar calls for his wife. Karla comes quickly and scoops up the toddler.

"She'll warm up," she assures no one in particular, avoiding her husband's eyes.

It is a difficult time for the young couple. For four years, Karla and Oscar Vasquez lived happily together in South Phoenix. Now, they are a family divided by the border between two countries.

Karla is a U.S. citizen who fell in love with an undocumented man. But Oscar is not your typical illegal immigrant — he grew up in the United States, entering the country with his parents at 12. He and Karla grew up together. Now, they are attempting to do exactly what critics of illegal immigration advocate: Oscar returned to Mexico to go through the process of applying to get back into the United States legally. As it turns out for people who grew up undocumented in the United States, though, legalizing their status is nearly impossible.

You may remember Oscar. If you do not, you will recall the Carl Hayden High School robotics team that thrashed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's team in an underwater robotics competition in 2004. It was the classic American underdog story — four poor high school kids (all illegal immigrants) beat the most prestigious technical university in the nation with nothing but grit, brainpower, and determination.

Wired published a cover story about them, and the story of the team's triumph over MIT spread rapidly. They were in the Arizona Republic. Reader's Digest translated their tale into Spanish and Italian. George Stephan­opoulos interviewed the kids on Nightline. Warner Brothers recently bought the movie rights to their story. Former Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano personally invited the four to her office to congratulate them. And, at 17, the undocumented Vasquez shook the hand of the future Secretary of Homeland Security.

If this were a Hollywood film, the story would have ended there. And for three of the four members of robotics team, it pretty much did.

Oscar was the only one to make it all the way through college, thanks to a scholarship funded by people around the world who had read about the team and wanted to help. He married Karla, his childhood sweetheart. They had a baby and bought a nice four-bedroom home in South Phoenix. Last May, Oscar graduated from ASU with honors and a degree in mechanical engineering. He was one of three students graduating from ASU that year to be specifically honored by President Barack Obama for his academic achievements. The students, Obama said, were "fine examples of what this country stands for."

On that day, dressed in a burgundy-and-gold graduation robe, he was close enough to the stage to see beads of sweat run down the president's face as he gave their commencement speech.

"I was in awe," recalls Oscar. "My dad only finished third grade. My mom had her middle-school certificate. My brothers and sisters went to middle school, and that's it. Most of my cousins haven't even gone to high school. Somehow I'd made it through."

It did not take long for his excitement to fade.

Though two companies promptly offered him engineering jobs, he was forced to turn them down. Without a Social Security number, he was unable to legally work. Because he had been living in the United States illegally, they were unable to sponsor him to stay. His degree collected dust on a shelf in their new home. He had two options: Lie low and hope that immigration laws change or return to Mexico and begin the uncertain process of applying for U.S. citizenship. He and Karla opted for the latter.

"I was tired of living in the shadows," he says, shrugging. "It's not in my character."

Oscar and Karla soon found out what dire circumstances they were in.

"Is there any way for undocumented kids to legalize their status?" Phoenix immigration attorney Delia Salvatierra asks rhetorically. "The very straightforward answer is: no."

Here is the problem: Once you have stayed in the country illegally a year beyond your 18th birthday, regardless of how you initially arrived, you are no longer eligible to apply to enter as a "typical" immigrant. Nor is there any way to apply for citizenship from within the country — joining the military is an option only for legal residents, and companies are prohibited from sponsoring illegal immigrants so that they can get the visas needed to work here legally. Once an immigrant has been living illegally as an adult in the United States, essentially the only way to legitimize his or her status is to return to their country of origin and apply from there.

But there is another catch. As soon as the immigrant leaves the United States, he or she is automatically penalized 10 years for having lived here illegally — which means application for legal entry will not be considered until a decade has passed. Even if the immigrant is married to an American citizen, the 10-year penalty stands.

For people like Oscar, only one option remains. If an illegal immigrant is an adult, and married to an American citizen, he or she can return to the country of origin, take the 10-year penalty on the visa application, and apply for a waiver on the basis that the separation creates "extreme hardship" for the applicant's American spouse. If the waiver is not granted, the immigrant is barred from entering the United States for 10 years.

The Vasquezes' only hope was to demonstrate to the U.S. Consulate that the separation was more than Karla could endure. Oscar's accomplishments — his engineering degree, his ROTC experience, his awards, and international acclaim — would not be taken into consideration. But "extreme hardship" is a vague term with a definition that varies, depending on which consular officer is reviewing the application. Their lawyer gave them a 50-50 chance. They took the gamble.

They lost. Everyone was stunned.

Oscar's former robotics instructor, Allan Cameron, was outraged.

"Right now, we need engineers. We're importing them from other countries. And here we've educated one — through our school system, in one of our colleges — and we're deporting him to Mexico? How does this make any sense? It's such a waste."

They received no explanation beyond a hastily checked box labeled "Failure to demonstrate 'extreme hardship.'" The Vasquezes have 30 days to submit additional forms to make their case, which will be reviewed after an additional 15 months.

Karla has had to drop out of school. She had intended to transfer to ASU from community college to complete a bachelor's degree in education. Instead, she is working 10-hour shifts at a car-rental agency at Sky Harbor Airport to support two households (here and in Mexico). To help out, her mother has quit her job of 21 years so she can take care of the baby while Karla works.

For Karla, the effect on her daughter, Samy, is the hardest part.

Samy is too young to understand what is happening — some days she wanders around the house, clutching a picture of her father in her small hands. Other days she will walk into his study, calling for him. When she finds he is not there, she will sit on the ash-colored carpet by her father's desk and cry.

"I do not know how much longer I can stand seeing our child confused and distraught by this drastic change in our lives," Karla wrote in her letter to the consulate.

Engineering degree under his belt, Oscar's first job in Mexico was picking beans for $60 a week. He has tried his hand at milking cows. For a while, he helped a butcher. More recently, he moved to Magdalena (Karla has an uncle there), where he landed a job as a manager at a maquiladora (a foreign-owned factory). He earns $100 a week.

These days, he sees his wife and daughter about once a month.

On the night Karla and Samy arrive, they eat a Thanksgiving dinner consisting of thick turkey slices warmed over a camping stove that Oscar plugged into a wall outlet in his small, tiled home. Oscar's apartment is mostly bare — adorned with a small, round table and a single chair, a dorm fridge, and the blue cooler — he sits on the cooler, while Karla takes the chair, holding Samy in her lap. By noon on Thanksgiving Day, Oscar helps Karla buckle Samy back into her car seat, and the two begin the long drive back to Phoenix, because Karla has to be at work Friday morning.

Still, even knowing what he does now, Oscar says he would do it the same way.

"In the United States, I couldn't do anything. That wasn't good for our family, either," he says. "Now, at least, I know where I stand."

Oscar's situation is what immigrating "the right way" can look like for people who grow up illegally in the United States.

For those who choose to stay on this side of the border, there is really only one option: wait for the piece of legislation called the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act to pass. The DREAM Act has been foundering in Congress, in various forms, for more than eight years.

It would provide a conditional pathway to citizenship for some of the people who came to this country illegally as children. There are a lot of caveats. As written, it is tailored to help only the most highly motivated undocumented people in this situation — the Oscars, Teresas, and Victorias. It would not apply to gang members, petty criminals, or high-school dropouts.

To qualify, they would need to have entered the country before age 16, lived here continually for five years (because he returned to Mexico, Oscar would not qualify), already have graduated high school or obtained a GED, be of "good moral character" (no criminal record), and be under age 35 at the time the bill was signed into law.

If they met all these conditions at the time the act passes, they could adjust their status to conditional residency. They then would have six years to either obtain a two-year college degree or complete two years of military service.

Only after successfully completing college or military service could they gain citizenship status. And even then, it would be a one-time deal for people already here; it would not extend to the next generation of undocumented people brought here as kids.

If the DREAM Act had passed when it was introduced in 2001, Oscar Vasquez would not have had to return to Mexico — he could have put his engineering degree to use in the United States. Virginia Gutierrez would probably be in medical school now, and Teresa in nursing school. Joe Arvizu might still be alive and serving in the military.

Like with everything concerning immigration, people are polarized when it comes to the DREAM Act — particularly in Arizona.

In 2007, Representative David Lujan introduced a state version of the bill in the Legislature, calling it the Arizona DREAM Act. It would have allowed undocumented juveniles brought here by their parents to pay in-state tuition. It never made it out of committee.

State Senator Russell Pearce regularly refers to the national DREAM legislation as the "Reward Lawbreakers Act," condemning it as amnesty that rewards parents who entered the United States illegally because it benefits their children. His objections are consistent with those of others who oppose the bill — organizations like the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the conservative think-tank Heritage Foundation. FAIR and Heritage are worried that undocumented kids will take college spots and funding that should go to U.S. citizens. Pearce has expressed concern that allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition would further deplete already diminished state coffers, at a time when Arizona is grappling with the biggest budget crisis in modern history.

The opposition is not doing its homework.

"When I hear some describe this as amnesty, I wonder — if someone is willing to risk his or her life to serve in our military in a combat zone — how that is a giveaway? Is that citizenship for nothing? I don't think so," said U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), when he introduced an earlier version of the DREAM Act in 2007. "It has really been fundamental that we don't hold children responsible for the errors and crimes of their parents. Why, then, would we hold these children responsible?"

At first blush, many concerns voiced by the opposition sound sensible. In Arizona, out-of-state tuition is roughly three times what in-state students pay. So it seems logical that state schools would lose money if undocumented students paid in-state tuition. As it turns out, though, upping the college costs means that fewer undocumented students can afford to go. Fewer students mean less tuition overall.

When Proposition 300 went into effect in 2007 — tripling state tuition for the undocumented — ASU and the University of Arizona were forced to deny in-state tuition to more than 1,500 students, according to that year's state legislative committee report. Today, the number of undocumented students enrolled in Arizona universities has dwindled to 300.

As for the concern that undocumented students displace qualified citizens, a 2009 study by the National Immigration Law Center shows that the effect is "minimal." The center's analysis of the 10 states that presently allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition — among them Texas and California, home to the largest illegal populations in the country — demonstrates that less than 2 percent of last year's high school graduating class were undocumented, and only a fraction of them would attend college even if they were able to pay the in-state rate.

For the most part, that translates to "only a few dozen or a few hundred particularly talented students" enrolling in college in each state, according to the study.

Last March, a group of senators and representatives introduced the DREAM Act to Congress again, as a stand-alone bill. With Comprehensive Immigration Reform (a massive re-examination and overhaul of the country's broken immigration system) near the top of the national legislative agenda, the DREAM Act has a chance of passing.

"We all recognize the value of higher education and service to our country. To serve these federal policy interests by giving legal stability and opportunity to young people caught in the limbo of our laws through no fault of their own is the right thing to do," said Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) when introducing the bill. "The promise this bill holds for so many young people will reinforce the spirit that underlies the history of American immigration and the diversity that has moved us so far."

Arizona's economy may be the big loser when it comes to deporting immigrants brought to the state illegally as children.

In 1987, a 19-year-old undocumented immigrant named Alfredo Quinones-Hinojosa from a small town in Mexico clawed his way over a border fence in Calexico, California, and took a job picking weeds and tomatoes in the fields of San Joaquin Valley. It was his second attempt at illegal entry — the first time, he was caught by U.S. Border Patrol officers and deported.

When his cousin remarked that he would never achieve anything beyond working as a day laborer, Quinones quit his job and moved to Stockton, where he worked in a rail yard during the day and took classes in English at the local community college at night. At the encouragement of his teachers, he applied and was accepted to the University of California, Berkeley. English was still tough for him, so he focused on math and science courses, paying for college through a combination of scholarships, loans, and grants. Next stop was Harvard Medical School. He did well there, too. He completed his residency in neurosurgery at the University of California, San Francisco.

Now, Quinones is an award-winning brain surgeon and director of the brain-tumor-research program at Johns Hopkins University. His next goal? Find a cure for brain cancer.

These days, somebody like Quinones would be stopped cold. Particularly in Arizona.

Times were different when Quinones made it across the border. He entered at the tail end of amnesty programs in the late 1980s, after working for several years illegally as a seasonal migrant worker. Because of the amnesty program, he was able to get temporary work authorization, then permanent work papers, followed — eventually — by a green card that granted him legal residency while still a farm worker. Because he had legal immigration status, he was able to get loans and scholarships. He became a U.S. citizen while at Harvard.

The undocumented who grow up in Arizona cannot do any of these things. But that does not stop some from trying to succeed.

Erica is the first person in her family to attend college. A petite woman with a thick mop of curly black hair tied into a neat ponytail, she has lived in Mesa most of her life — her parents brought her over the border illegally at 11. She graduated at the top of her class at Westwood High School in Mesa, earning a full four-year scholarship to ASU, where she studied psychology.

She spent two years in college before Proposition 300 passed, taking her scholarship funds with it. The next two years were an emotional rollercoaster of scrambling to apply for the few private scholarship programs that do not require Social Security numbers. Because of her inability to apply for loans or state scholarships, she nearly dropped out of college four times. Still, she managed to scrape through, getting a bachelor's degree from ASU in May.

The day she graduated was bittersweet. Sure, Erica had her degree, but she could not use it to get a job. It hangs in a heavy wooden frame on a wall above her couch, a useless piece of paper. She wants to eventually get a master's degree and work as a high school counselor — to help other kids like her — but she cannot afford more education. Instead of working in her field, she cares for infants at a nursery, which pays her off the books. She cannot help feeling angry when she sees her undocumented friends — college graduates in engineering, political science, and bioengineering — working alongside their parents as landscapers, house-cleaners, or in construction.

One undocumented ASU bioengineering graduate managed to secure a job as a researcher for the university and another private company. But he lost it when Arizona passed the 2008 employer-sanctions law, which prohibits companies from knowingly hiring undocumented workers. Now he works as a waiter.

"It's frustrating. In high school, they always tell you that if you work hard, if you're good person, you'll excel in life," Erica says. "But even when you're [a] good person and you're doing everything right, you hit all these barriers. You want to quit. I don't feel like my life is in my hands."

Yet Erica is one of the lucky ones. She managed to get a college education. With the economy in turmoil and the crackdown on illegal immigration, especially in Arizona, the few scholarships available to undocumented students are drying up. Most undocumented college students enrolled today attend on a semester-to-semester basis, raising funds as they go. Many are forced to drop out.

It is no wonder, then, that many Phoenix high school teachers report that undocumented students are losing hope.

Joni Adams is a counselor at North High School — the same school Victoria Gutierrez and Joe Arvizu attended, before they were deported. Four years of new policies aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration have taken a toll on her undocumented students. The same kids who, just a few years earlier, would be sure shots at college are giving up. It is not difficult to see why: what is the incentive to study, when a college degree gets you nowhere? They get depressed. Their grades dip. Some disappear.

"It makes me feel like the job we have is impossible. We're given a catch-22, where we're supposed to advocate and care and nurture these children all through school, through their career-building years, pointing them to some kind of goal," says Adams, her voice stinging with frustration. "And yet the marker is moved by the government, and the goal does not exist. So, for these kids, the American dream we've been encouraging them [to seek] their entire lives is fantasy."

This year, she is seeing something new: some of her most ambitious and talented undocumented students, after graduating, are leaving on their own for Mexico. Aspiring doctors and lawyers — ROTC cadets who want nothing more than to serve in the military — are electing to return to a country they barely know to pursue their aspirations there.

Like Mari. At 12, she nearly died crossing the desert with her mother to enter the United States. Now she is about to graduate high school. Her English is improving, and her grades are good. She wants to be a lawyer. If she could, she would do it here. But she is unwilling to put her life on hold to wait for a DREAM Act that might never pass. In May, after she graduates, she plans to return to Mexico to pursue an advanced degree there. It is a big decision for a 17-year-old. Her entire family is in Phoenix — her mother, father, and most of her cousins. Mari knows the danger of the desert. Once she crosses back into Nogales, she is not coming back.

"It's hard," she says. "But I have to make a choice — my family or my future."

Some college graduates are also electing to leave for other countries to put their degrees to use. Dulce — another Carl Hayden Robotics whiz kid — is one of those. She graduated last year from ASU with an electrical engineering degree and the aspiration of getting a job inventing life-changing medical equipment for people with disabilities. If the DREAM Act does not pass this year, she intends to move to Canada and do it there.

It is such stories that frustrate immigration lawyer Delia Salvatierra, who is often the one to break the news to undocumented students that there is little hope of legitimizing their immigration status.

"Most of these kids have aspirations of going to school here, of having a life here. It just seems so absurd to educate them in American schools and then say that they don't belong here," she says. "You're draining potential. These are people who could live productive lives in the United States. [Most] are extremely loyal and talented. It's absurd to say, 'Okay, you're not from here, so pack up your bags and go.'"

As for Dr. Quinones, he says he knows he probably should not have entered the country illegally. But he also strongly believes that it is the United States that is losing out by keeping people like him from putting their talents to use.

"This country was formed by immigrants. By 2050, one quarter will be of Hispanic descent — mostly Mexican-American — yet we are the group with the lowest education and income. If we are to sustain this country as the most wonderful and powerful, we can't do it if one quarter of the population is in this situation," he says. "Some kids are truly hungry to succeed. They come from humble backgrounds, but they're talented and capable and we need to identify them and open the doors to them so they can make a contribution. It isn't rocket science — it isn't neurosurgery. It's plain and simple."

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