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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Young man who grew up in Milwaukie awaits vote on Senate bill that would create path to citizenship for minors brought to U.S. without documentation

By Anne Saker
The Oregonian
December 07, 2010

No one will be more interested in the outcome of a U.S. Senate vote today than a 20-year-old man who grew up in Milwaukie but discovered he was neither a citizen nor a legal resident when federal authorities arrested him in August and deported him to Mexico.

"My parents never chose to tell me about my legal status," said Hector Lopez. "I like to think I'm somewhat charismatic, and they didn't want to step on that, so they let me live oblivious."

Today, the Senate is expected to vote on a bill, 10 years in the making, that would create a path for young people such as Lopez -- brought to the United States as minors without documentation -- to earn citizenship through military service or college coursework.

As recently as September, the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act -- DREAM -- looked to be on a glide to passage. But the November election turned in part on the immigration issue, with some candidates arguing for a throw-them-all-out approach even as the Obama administration hit a record number of deportations, close to 400,000, in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30. Half of those were people convicted of crimes.

Lopez would be among about 2 million children and young adults eligible for citizenship under the bill. Opponents, led by Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, say the act would be in effect amnesty and would attract more undocumented immigration.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement tracks numbers not state by state but by region; Oregon is counted with Washington and Alaska. Deportations from those states peaked in fiscal year 2008 at 10,910. The number dropped to 9,933 in fiscal year 2010, but a higher proportion of convicted criminals were deported than in the previous five years.

Spokeswoman Lorie Dankers in Seattle said the agency's director "has in many venues said the goal was to try to remove 400,000 people, and we were funded to do that."

But the administration applied a number of tactics to hit that target, according to a story published Monday by the journalism nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting.

The story reported the agency counted nearly 20,000 immigrants who had left the previous year. Officials ran a repatriation program to Mexico five weeks longer than ever to count 6,500 more exits. Agents were directed to encourage eligible deportees to simply return voluntarily to their home countries, a method that allows a noncitizen to apply later for legal residence or to travel to the United States.

Hector Lopez was deported to Mexico on Sept. 1. Since then, he has attracted the attention and resources of a wealthy Texas businessman, Ralph Isenberg, who became an immigration advocate after fighting his wife's immigration problems for years.

Lopez "may not be a citizen technically, but he's as American as you or I," Isenberg said Tuesday from his office in Dallas. "I challenge anyone to show that this kid doesn't deserve this opportunity."

Lopez was 6 months old when his parents brought him to Milwaukie from Mexico. When he was 9 years old, his parents hired a lawyer to secure immigration papers; the lawyer got work documents, then disappeared without telling the Lopez family of an upcoming hearing, so they did not know that a judge issued a deportation order.

Meanwhile, Lopez was elected student-body president at Rex Putnam High School, where he graduated. He was a Little League coach and logged 600 hours of community service. He went to Clackamas Community College for two years and aimed to transfer to Portland State University to major in marketing.

On Aug. 23, immigration agents arrested Lopez and his parents; Hector and his father were deported, and his mother won a delay to stay with Hector's 15-year-old brother, born in Oregon.

Lopez speaks little Spanish. He said he stayed with a friend of his mother's, and, "At first, you try to be optimistic: I'll be out of here in no time. After a few weeks, you realize it's going to take a long time."

Lopez said he began to fear for his life, although he declined to describe the particulars. On Nov. 17, he rode a bus to the city of Sonora and asked at the U.S. border for asylum on a "reasonable fear" for his safety. He was put in a detention center in Florence, Ariz., to await an interview that has not been scheduled.

"I was trying to avoid going to a detention center. But then I realized that alive in a detention center in the United States was better than dead in Mexico," Lopez said.

The mother of one of Lopez's high school friends searched for help. She learned of Isenberg's assistance to a 19-year-old Texas teenager deported in February to Bangladesh. He agreed to help Lopez.

Isenberg said he paid for Lopez's lawyers and offered to fly his mother and brother to Arizona.

"When I say we're involved, I mean we're involved," Isenberg said. "We've lit the fuse on it."