Arizona's 'Wilson 4' Remain in Legal Limbo

Three years after legal woes began, four Phoenix students still face deportation. They grew up as Americans after entering the U.S. illegally as toddlers. The government is appealing a judge's decision to throw the case out.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

In border states that are on the other side of the country from hurricanes, immigration has been the swirling issue of the year. The governors of Arizona and New Mexico have declared states of emergencies because of the crush of people crossing the border illegally and the brazenness of criminal smuggling rings. Two hundred and fifty thousand people are estimated to have illegally crossed the southwestern border of the United States this year, at a time when Americans are notably anxious about securing the country's borders. At the same time, the case of four young people who have become known as the Wilson Four for the name of their old high school has underscored what can seem to be complexities and deficiencies of current immigration law.

Yuliana Huicochea, Jaime Damian, Luis Nava and Oscar Corona are accused of committing immigration crimes while they were in their parents' arms. Their parents carried them into the United States from Mexico when they were infants and toddlers. They went to school, made friends, did well and lived as ordinary US citizens until the summer of 2002.

Unidentified Man: We're building a solar boat and we got sponsored to go to Buffalo, New York, to compete against other colleges, universities.

Unidentified Man: So it was kind of like a once in a lifetime opportunity for me at least.

Unidentified Man: We went over there and we qualified early.

Unidentified Man: So we had one day just for nothing, and then we just decided, `You know, let's go sight-seeing. Niagara Falls, you know, everybody knows about Niagara Falls.'

Unidentified Man: And we went and got into two separate groups.

Unidentified Man: I mean, I've never been outside of California or Arizona. So that was something new for me. Like, it was totally exciting.

Unidentified Man: There was two teachers. Mr. Howard(ph) went with Luis and them, and Ms. Rainey(ph), she went with us. And she went to go see Niagara Falls from the other side, from Canada.

Unidentified Man: Because when we got there, at first we thought that you could only get on the ferry but on the Canadian side. We didn't know that there was one on the American side as well, and I guess one of the teachers, they wanted to do that and that's when she went into the immigration offices, I guess.

Unidentified Man: And she went in there and she went in there just to ask if it was going to be OK just to go to the other side just with our school IDs.

Unidentified Man: One of the mom and dad chaperons just come out. The mom was just crying, just bawling. The teacher who was with us, Joe Howard(ph), went to go see what was going on. He asked us to wait there, and 15 minutes later, he came walking back with a Customs official.

SIMON: The students were detained for nine hours and questioned by INS agents. Yuliana Huicochea declined to speak with us as did US immigration officials. Oscar Corona says the questioning was intense and sometimes insulting.

Mr. OSCAR CORONA: There was a one point where the two officers--they weren't talking directly towards us, but they were talking among each other and then they were, I guess--I don't know if they were actually going to do it or they were just saying it to say it, but they were actually talking about getting something to eat or going out, you know, get something to eat or something. And actually one of the officers actually suggested to get Mexican takeout. And then they both kind of glanced at us with a smile on their face. So that's basically--we were just there to--for a school project, and then to be treated like that, it's horrible.

SIMON: The students were sent back to Arizona for deportation to Mexico, but this summer, immigration Judge John Richardson threw the case out, saying the students had clearly been stopped because of their ethnicity, which is racial profiling. The Justice Department appealed the decision in September. So three years after they were detained, the students still live in a state of suspension, free to go to school but not to work. They can stay in the US but can't plan for the future. They live in the only country they have ever known but worry about being sent back to a place they have never even seen.

All four were excellent students at their school which has since been renamed the Vicky A. Romero High School.

(Soundbite of bell tone; student activity)

SIMON: The high school has about 400 students, many from poor Hispanic families. Many may have been brought into the United States illegally as infants. Many have siblings, who, because they were born in the US, are US citizens, but under federal law, the school cannot ask a student about his or her immigration status. Romero is considered a good school. The attendance rate is 96 percent. Half of the students who graduated from here have gone on to higher education. Principal Jane Juliano says she finds a cruel inconsistency in the present laws that encourage students who may be illegal immigrants to get an education but not make their lives here.

Ms. JANE JULIANO (Principal, Vicky A. Romero High School): When they get to high school, they realize that once they graduate, it's a dead end for them, there is no job for them, there is sometimes no higher education because they don't have--these kids are going to college without scholarships. I mean, they can't get any federal funding or assistance. They can't even get a driver's license to drive. So what is their future? And it's wrong what we're doing in American education to make those promises to these kids and tell them they have a future when they don't.

SIMON: The story of the Wilson Four has stirred great interest within Arizona where the case seems to symbolize so many of the inconsistencies in immigration policy. Each year, an estimated 65,000 high-school students across the country graduate who have the same legal status as the Wilson Four. They're every nationality--Poles, Irish, Nigerians and Salvadoreans as well as Mexicans. At the point when they should be making plans and growing excited about the future, they can only live day to day and fear that something from their past for which they're not responsible will be discovered and used against them.

Governor Janet Napolitano, who prosecuted many illegal immigrants as a district attorney, seems conflicted by the case.

Governor JANET NAPOLITANO (Arizona): Those of us who have been dealing with immigration for a long time believe that you have to look at it at different levels. I mean, I don't believe in taking illegal immigration out on the kids, and I think one of the things that case illustrated is it's not as simple, it's not as some would have us believe, and there are some issues of fundamental fairness here that need to be taken into account.

SIMON: With respect to that case, what would be a happy resolution? Would you venture a guess?

Gov. NAPOLITANO: Well, I'd like all those kids to get engineering degrees and get good jobs and keep those jobs right here in Arizona.

SIMON: One hope the Wilson Four and thousands in a similar situation have of staying in this country they have always known is a bill called the DREAM Act. Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah, a Republican, and Democrat Dick Durbin of Illinois have proposed giving immigrant students who've grown up in the US and graduated from high school here a chance to apply for permanent resident status. The bill has bipartisan support, but it's stalled in the US Congress. Critics say even more illegal immigration would occur if people crossing the border thought they could guarantee that their children would become US citizens.

It will be a year or more before the cases of the Wilson Four are settled on appeal, so the students try to prepare for their futures while contending with uncertainty.

Three are attending college. Luis Nava took on extra classes to graduate from Arizona State University in just three years, with a business degree.

Mr. LUIS NAVA: Definitely I was worried because I was pretty sure I was going to get deported. So I finished school as fast as I could and I overloaded and took summer classes, stuff like that. It was definitely a big stress on me throughout these whole three years.

SIMON: So you want to go into business.

Mr. NAVA: Yeah. Eventually, yeah.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. NAVA: Well, of course, I have to work for a few years and eventually I want to start up my own company.

SIMON: So somebody wakes you up in the middle of the night and says, `Mr. Nava, what are you?' what do you say?

Mr. NAVA: I say that I'm American. And I mean, I know that I am very proud of my Hispanic roots and I'd never deny them, but I am American. I belong here.

SIMON: Oscar Corona has gotten married. He has a child who is an American citizen by birth. For legal reasons, he declines to say whether he has a job to support his family, but Oscar Corona seems certain of one thing.

Mr. CORONA: How am I not American? You know, all through school and everything, I pledged to the flag, you know? I mean, I have my family, my friends. I grew up here. I did everything. I'm just, you know, like any other kid down the block. How am I not American?

SIMON: Our story on the Wilson Four of Phoenix was produced by Mat Martinez and recorded by Patrick Murray.

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