MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
ROBERT SMITH, host:
And I'm Robert Smith.
Congress has been in session for less than a week. And while talk of Iraq dominates, immigration reform seems to have slipped off the radar.
BRAND: But one Miami teenager is trying to keep that immigration debate afloat. His name is Juan Gomez. Juan is 18 years old. He came to the U.S. from Columbia with his mother, his father, and his older brother Alex when he was just one years old. They arrived on a travel visa and they immediately applied for political asylum.
SMITH: The Gomez family lived in the United States legally while their case was being decided; then they lost. In 2003 they received their final deportation order, but the family didn't return to Columbia.
BRAND: I spoke earlier with Juan Gomez and Cheryl Little. She's a lawyer with the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.
Juan, you had your final deportation order in December of 2003, and just a couple of months ago your family was arrested.
Mr. JUAN GOMEZ (College Student): It was 5:30 in the morning and I wake up and I see my dad running around, saying immigration's here. And right there is when it hit me. I realized, wow, this could be our last day in this country. This country - I've been here for so long. They came into our house and they asked for ID, and they told us we have final orders, and we'd be leaving that day. My father was taken to Krome. We were all handcuffed. My father was taken to Krome. My brother and I were taken to the men's section of the Broward Transitional Detention Center, while my mom was taken to the women's wing. So they had just completely separated the family. I know my brother and I were the youngest detainees.
BRAND: And what was it like in there?
Mr. GOMEZ: You have to put on orange jumpsuits, and that, in fact, is the hardest part. They're sort of treating you the same way they would treat a common criminal.
BRAND: And so you were released in a week…
Mr. GOMEZ: Yeah.
BRAND: …which I guess from what I've read is a pretty fast…
Mr. GOMEZ: We had met people that were there for nine months, a year.
BRAND: And then why do you think you were released so quickly?
Mr. GOMEZ: We have great friends at first. They started a publicity campaign.
BRAND: So this from press accounts that I've read and heard, this was a 2,000 student-strong movement on the Web and it really…
Mr. GOMEZ: Well, yeah, they started a Facebook group, which is usually, you know, just a social networking tool. But they used it for, you know, our campaign. And right now, there is a good 3,000 members. But I know within the first week there was 2,000. They all - all my friends wrote letters to congressmen and women. I was well-entrenched in the, you know, upper echelons of, you know, the students and the AP kids, and all of them understood what needed to be done.
BRAND: There are, from what I understand, and correct me if I'm wrong, Cheryl, there is some 65,000 young people in a similar situation?
Ms. CHERYL LITTLE (Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center): That's right. And one of the things that has so impressed me about Juan and Alex is that they're really far more focused on garnering support for the DREAM Act. The DREAM Act would enable students like Juan and Alex, who have lived here for at least five years, who haven't gotten in trouble with the law, to go to college or join the military and obtain, initially, temporary legal residency and hopefully eventually permanent residency in the United States.
BRAND: So the DREAM Act would let students like Juan and Alex, in fact Juan and Alex themselves, stay in the United States and eventually gain permanent residency.
Ms. LITTLE: That's right. But if Juan and Alex were deported tomorrow or next week, before the DREAM Act passes or before the private bill passed on their behalf, well, they would have lose whatever opportunity they might have had to remain in the United States.
BRAND: Now, Juan, you have been granted a stay until the middle of October?
Mr. GOMEZ: Yes. October 14th.
BRAND: October 14th, and that's when - what will happen on October 14th?
Ms. LITTLE: Well, if we don't get an extension of a stay of removal or if the private bill that Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart introduced in the House Immigration Subcommittee isn't put in the agenda, then they're going to have to report for deportation and they will be sent back to Columbia.
BRAND: And that private bill would apply only to Juan and Alex and let them stay here?
Ms. LITTLE: That private bill would apply only to Juan and Alex. Now, it takes a long, long, long time before a final decision is made in a private bill. But in the House Immigration Subcommittee, once it's put in the agenda, then their deportation in all likelihood would be stayed until sometime in March 2009, which, you know, would give people time to try to gain support for the DREAM Act and hopefully it would pass.
BRAND: President Bush supported the DREAM Act, yet it still failed to gain traction in Congress. There's a lot of opposition to granting illegal immigrants any kind of reprieve at all at this moment. So you know, what are your chances that the DREAM Act will actually get passed?
Ms. LITTLE: Well, there's no question we're dealing with a hostile environment when we're talking about immigration issues. But you know, it makes no sense for U.S. taxpayers to throw away the investment we've already made in educating bright young students like Juan and Alex. I mean, we should be reaping the benefits of our investment rather than deporting these people and stopping, you know, the drain of American talent. I mean, we are wasting precious resources.
BRAND: But I'm sure people on the other side would say, that's all very well and good. And yes, I'm sure that Juan and Alex, they're both outstanding citizens, but it's a matter of fairness. They simply broke the law and they can't be rewarded for it.
Ms. LITTLE: Juan and Alex didn't break the law.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. LITTLE: Juan and Alex…
BRAND: Well, the parents did and these are - this is, you know, you've got to live with the consequences.
Mr. GOMEZ: And we should be held accountable for it? I mean, where are the instances in the law is there a case where the kids are held accountable for what their parents do?
BRAND: Is there something a bit unfair that you are getting all this attention and a private bill is being drafted for you when there are thousands and thousands of other children who are not receiving, getting the similar accommodation?
Mr. GOMEZ: Well, we were on the verge of being deported. Now, a private bill was necessary in order to, you know, somehow stay our deportation. But since I've been out of the detention center, I haven't put any effort into the private bill. I've gone - I went to Washington, D.C. and lobbied for the DREAM Act. I understand it's un uphill battle that, you know, we're just going to have to push to stay in this country. But if I am deported in the worse case scenario, I just want to leave with knowing the fact that no other student goes through what I did, no other student who's excelled in school is feeling so persecuted within the borders of a nation that he's called home for so many years; he or she.
BRAND: That's Juan Gomez. He's a college student. He and his brother Alex are facing deportation back to his home country, Columbia. And we spoke also with Cheryl Little. She's a lawyer and executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center. The group is representing Juan and Alex.
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