ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Robert Siegel.
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And Im Michele Norris.
Eric Balderas was a star student enrolled at Harvard and just becoming active in the fight for immigration reform, that is until authorities discovered that he was in the country illegally and threatened him with deportation.
NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH: He's been called the perfect poster boy. Nineteen-year-old Eric Balderas is an academic superstar at Harvard, studying molecular biology and hoping one day to help cure cancer. He was brought to the U.S. by his mother when he was four, and went on to become his high school valedictorian and to win a full scholarship to Harvard.
He was trying to fly back to school after a visit with his mom in Texas when he was stopped by immigration and led away in handcuffs. His story immediately made headlines. Advocates rallied for his release and within days authorities agreed to give Balderas a break.
Mr. KYLE DE BEAUSSET (Founder, Citizen Orange and Co-Founder, The Sanctuary): I think that was the quickest one of those campaigns I've ever been part of.
SMITH: Immigration advocate Kyle de Beausset says even immigration authorities balked at the idea of deporting a guy like Balderas.
Mr. DE BEAUSSET It really is like deporting the best and brightest. It doesn't really make any sense. I think that's why it caught on like this.
SMITH: Now that he's got his temporary reprieve, Balderas is declining comment and trying to keep a lower profile.
Fellow student, 22-year-old Conrado Santos says there is a downside to focusing so much attention on a case like Balderas's.
Mr. CONRADO SANTOS (Student, University of Massachusetts): It perpetuates a misconception that people have that Eric is some kind of super exception, that the majority of immigrants are criminals and drug runners, but there is one or two super special, and we should keep those. And that is, like I said, is a misconception.
SMITH: Santos is himself one of what may be hundreds of thousands of other good kids who are undocumented. Santos was brought as a child to the U.S. from Brazil. He also excelled in school, went to college and now dreams of being a civil rights lawyer. But he lives in constant fear.
Mr. SANTOS: And everyday you think about, like at any minute it could happen. You know, Immigration comes...
(Soundbite of knocking)
Mr. SANTOS: ...and hey, you're going back to Brazil, you know. Knowing that all this work that I'm putting in could just be gone like that. That is what's unbearable.
SMITH: The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that undocumented youth are allowed to attend public schools. But things get a lot dicier, Santos says, when it's time to get driver's license, a first job or to apply to college.
Mr. SANTOS: It's always that idea of no, you can't do this. No, you can't this. No, you can't do this. And when we hit the real-life stuff, you know, the driver's license, the job, the college, is when we go: Oh, my God. What am I doing this for? You know, maybe I should just pack up and go. But go where? You know, it's not my home isn't over there. My home is right here in Boston. This is where I grew up. You know, I watch the Celtics and the Red Sox, and this is my home.
SMITH: Santos says he thought long and hard about coming out. He knows he's at greater risk now. But if the worst happens, he says he also knows he's connected to a community of activists who will make noise and try to help.
Unidentified Man: Yes, we can. Yes, we can.
SMITH: Outside the Massachusetts State House, students have been camped out 24/7 protesting a state plan to crack down on illegals.
Students like Erica from Guatemala, who didn't want to use her last name, are also hoping to help gin up support for the federal DREAM Act. That would offer legal status to young people who are in college or the military. But it's been stuck in Congress for years.
ERICA: We're not asking anything for free. We just want to be part of society and want to contribute to this country.
(Soundbite of cheering)
SMITH: It's this kind of appeal that even hard-liners, like Ira Mehlman of the Federation for Americans Immigration Reform, find somewhat sympathetic.
Mr. IRA MEHLMAN (Media Director, Federation for American Immigration Reform): You know, nobody feels good about this. Everybody understands that these kids were put in a very difficult situation not of their own making. But we need to enforce laws in a way that make it clear to parents that if you come to the United States illegally, you are not going to be rewarded and that the only logical decision is to say, you know what, it's time to go home.
SMITH: Mehlman says offering any kind of deal to undocumented students will only encourage more illegal immigration. And he says giving a reprieve to high achievers, like Harvard's Eric Balderas, is profoundly unfair.
Mr. MEHLMAN: Whether you're an honor student at Harvard or you're a dishwasher, the law applies to you equally. And we can't just carve out exceptions for people based on their IQs.
SMITH: Ultimately, it's sad for the kids, Mehlman says, but illegal immigrants are no different than anyone else who breaks the law. If you get caught, he says, you end up hurting your family as well as yourself.
Tovia Smith, NPR News, Boston.