Blog Archive

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A second chance: Deportation policy changes allow students to stay in U.S.

By Rachel Brown
The Dalton Daily Citizen
Sep 17, 2011

It all started on Father’s Day.

Pedro Morales, 19, of the Eastside community, got a call from his father asking him for a ride home. Pedro’s father normally doesn’t indulge in alcohol, family members said, but on this occasion he’d had a couple of beers and wasn’t feeling well.

“I had to get him home so he could take his pill, and so I decided to drive,” said Morales, who does not have a driver’s license because he was illegally brought into the country when he was 7 and has lived here ever since.

Morales got stopped at a road block, and when a Whitfield County Sheriff’s Office deputy asked him for his license, he confessed he didn’t have one. He was put into the back of a car, and a friend with a valid license drove his father home.

That was the last time he would see his family until Aug. 23, when he was released from custody. In the intervening two months, he spent five days in the local jail and most of the rest of the time in the Stewart Detention Center in Lumpkin, fighting not to be deported to his native Mexico, which he hasn’t been to since he was little.

Morales said he was depressed and ready to give up hope when a judge finally dismissed his case based on a new enforcement policy from the Obama administration that instructs officials to focus deportation efforts on illegals who have committed violent crimes or been convicted of crimes. The directive excludes most students from being priorities for deportation, particularly those who have lived most of their lives in the United States.

Caught in traffic

Morales and Gordon Central High School student Luis “Ricky” Hernandez, 18, were among the first youths in the nation to benefit from the new policy.

Hernandez also has ties to Dalton and, like Morales, was represented by Atlanta-based immigration attorney Charles Kuck. Hernandez participated in Dalton State College’s Steps to College program for high school students this summer and was in Dalton when he was arrested and nearly deported back to Mexico.

Like Morales, Hernandez had been brought to the United States at a young age — just 2. His only relative who still lives in Mexico is his grandmother, he said. It’s a country he doesn’t know.

Hernandez said it was mid-June when he was on his way to see the movie “Hangover II” with a friend. He was a passenger in the car his friend was driving, and the two were pulled over for a headlights violation. Hernandez said he was booked on a drug possession charge, which was later dropped after authorities found no proof the drugs, which were found in the car, belonged to him. Once officials discovered he was in the country illegally, he too was sent to the Stewart Detention Center.

The two cases are not uncommon.

Morales said he ran into a few Southeast High School and Whitfield Career Academy students at Stewart while he was there. He said they were likewise arrested on traffic violations and awaiting deportation. Southeast Principal Brian Satterfield, who could not be reached to comment on this story, said in a previous interview that the school’s expected graduation rate dropped slightly because five students were deported last year.

“There’s really not a whole lot we can do with that, although we have tried to work with the ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) in Atlanta to see if they can possibly graduate before the deportation,” he said last month.

Hernandez’s principal, Scott McClanahan, said another of the school’s students, an honors student who played football, was in JROTC and planned to enter the military, was deported to his native Guatemala in April.

“This happens all the time,” Kuck said. “You let these kids grow up here, you educate them and then you deport them to a country they don’t know. It’s insane. It’s an insane process.”

Staying in Stewart

The detention center houses anyone set to be deported. Morales said he was placed in a cell with 66 people. The men slept on bunk beds and shared three bathrooms and five showers, he said.

“I had never been in trouble for anything,” Morales said. “They put me with people from prison ... It was pretty awkward at the beginning.”

Morales’ father, who is also Pedro Morales, said he went to see eight lawyers in Atlanta, one of whom he lost $1,000 with. He didn’t want his son to return to the chaotic situation in Mexico where just last week three people were killed in his town and there is extortion, drugs and anarchy from the drug traffickers, he said.

“We took it for fact that my son was going to be deported back to Mexico,” said the father. “There were days of anxiety, not sleeping, not eating. It is something you do not wish on anyone.”

Morales’ mother, Veronica Arredondo, said the experience was “very hard,” and that she’d never been apart from her son for so long before. She said he’d never had problems in school or been in trouble with the law.

In Calhoun, teacher and assistant soccer coach Sean McKenzie said he advocated for Hernandez to be able to stay with his family in the United States, as did several other educators. McKenzie said he invited all his students to participate in Steps to College, a program which helps high school students or recent graduates prepare for high stakes tests and college entrance exams, but Hernandez was the only one who took him up on it.

“When I found out Ricky had been picked up, it was especially upsetting to me,” McKenzie said. “He had been working so hard to try to better himself.”

McKenzie said Hernandez had never been in any trouble.

“That wasn’t his marijuana,” he said. “He didn’t have anything to do with that.”

Hernandez said he always held out hope he would not be deported.

“I had a feeling I would (be released) because I didn’t do anything bad,” he said. “I was just in there wasting time when I could have been with my family.”

For two months, Morales stayed in Stewart as Kuck attempted to get him back home. When told he was getting released, he initially didn’t believe it.

“I was getting everything denied, and everything was getting worse,” Morales said. “My last court (date) was the decision if I was going to be able to stay or if I would have to leave. They told me my case was dropped because of what President Obama said, that people brought here as children or were students and trying to achieve a college degree, that immigration was going to have to leave them alone.”

There’s no guarantee, of course, that Morales or Hernandez can continue to live in the United States. Enforcement is conducted on a case-by-case basis.

“ICE moved to administratively close their case,” Kuck said. “ICE could move to administratively open their case.”

Looking forward

Both young men are working to get permission to stay here legally, they said. Kuck said they’re not eligible to become legal residents, but he will apply next week to allow them to continue to live in the U.S. under ICE supervision and get work visas. It could be months before they learn of the decision, he said.

“It (the appeal) is through ICE, and it’s very informal,” he said, adding he didn’t know how long the work permits would last if granted. “A lot of this is dependent on the current administration’s policies on this, and frankly they are at best vague.”

Morales applied to Georgia Northwestern Technical College last year to begin studying auto engine repair at the college’s Walker County campus. A 2010 graduate at the Whitfield Career Academy, he had planned to be in school this fall.

Instead, he spent his college savings on fighting deportation, he said. He said he’s hoping to begin classes in the spring.

Hernandez said he too hopes to go to college somewhere.

Asked what he learned from the situation, Hernandez said he’ll now be more careful who he hangs around with. He said he wishes he could have his own car so he’ll know what’s in it and what’s not.

Morales said he wishes officials would put more thought into who they’re arresting.

“They should look more into seeing what kind of people they’re arresting because a lot of people are not doing anything bad,” he said. “A lot of these people are honest people. They just want to work and make something out of themselves like I’m trying to do.”

Temple Black, an ICE spokesman based in Louisiana, said that without local sheriff and police departments holding illegal aliens, it would be harder to catch those who have committed crimes.

“The identification and removal of many criminal aliens would not be possible without the cooperation of our state and local law enforcement partners,” Black said in an emailed statement. “ICE detainers are an effective tool to ensure that individuals convicted of criminal charges or who have previously been removed, who are found to be in violation of U.S. immigration law, are not released back into the community to potentially commit more crimes.”

He did say using resources on cases that are no longer deemed high priority hurts the department’s goal of deporting those who are a threat to safety.

Teachers, McKenzie said, often find themselves in a delicate situation when it comes to working with children who, though they may have had no say in the matter, are illegal aliens. Schools are required to serve students regardless of their immigration status, meaning American taxpayers foot the bill for a majority of their education.

McKenzie said he would like lawmakers to create a clear path to legal residency for students like Hernandez. Others say there should be stronger border enforcement or even stronger efforts to deport everyone who is in the country illegally. They point out the difficulty of holding illegals accountable since they often don’t carry car insurance, and they lament the fact many undocumented residents take advantage of taxpayer-funded social service programs that are supposed to be reserved for legal residents.

Still others take a middle-of-the-road approach, supporting enforcement of the law but also advocating for leniency for at least some.

“I do think everybody has got to make up their mind how they handle things, but I certainly see it as my role to stand up for my students and be an advocate for them,” McKenzie said. “Ricky is a great kid, and I was honored to stand up for him.”

El Informador writer Jorge Perez contributed to this story.