Last May Jessica Colotl graduated from Kennesaw State University, a small university outside of Atlanta, with a degree in political science. This May a judge will decide whether she stays in the U.S. or gets shipped off to Mexico—a country she hasn’t seen since she was 10 years old.
Colotl, 22, is a casualty of the failed DREAM Act, the 10-year-old legislative proposal that would provide a path to legal residency for people who came to the U.S. as minors with their undocumented parents. When the latest attempt to pass the act died in Congress in December 2010, Colotl and an estimated 2 million others went into legal limbo, which frustrates the Latino community and paves the way for immigration to be a political hot button in this year’s presidential campaign, especially since the number of deportations under the Obama administration is at a record high: almost 400,000 in 2011. “Latinos are frustrated with the record level of deportations,” says Kevin Johnson, dean of the University of California, Davis, School of Law and professor of Chicano studies. As a result, he says, many “may not turn out to vote, a real concern of the Obama campaign.”
The DREAM Act, which was re-introduced in the Senate last May, has yet to come up for a new vote. Meanwhile, states are working on their own versions of the act, with California Gov. Jerry Brown signing that state’s DREAM Act into law in October; recently, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand co-wrote an op-ed in the New York Daily News calling for New York to do the same. Many young people are gathering on sites such as Dreamactivist.org to discuss ways to revive the act—some outing themselves as undocumented immigrants in the process.
Opponents argue that the act offers amnesty to immigrants at a time when border security is a national issue. At a campaign stop in Iowa this past Saturday, Mitt Romney said he would veto the bill if elected president. “For those who come here illegally, the idea of giving them in-state tuition credits or other special benefits I find to be contrary to the idea of a nation of law,” he reportedly said.
Jessica Colotl holds out hope, despite her precarious position. “We know that the DREAM Act will be a reality,” she says. “We just don’t know when. We’re talking about Americans brought here as young children through no fault of their own, just waiting for an opportunity to integrate into society legally.”
Colotl’s own story began when she was 10. Her Mexican parents crossed the Arizona border late one night with her, her brother, and two sisters. They eventually made their way to Atlanta, where Jessica grew up believing she was an American. By high school, she’d pieced together the truth. Her parents didn’t own a car, saying it was too dangerous. (In Georgia, undocumented immigrants can’t get a driver’s license.) At 15, she wanted an after-school job, but she didn’t have a Social Security card—her father said they were only for the “wealthy.” These moments added up. One night as she watched the evening news, a lightbulb went off: “They were always talking about immigration reform, showing people crossing the border. It dawned on me: I did that,” she says. She never broached the subject with her parents. “They were trying to protect us,” she says. “My parents sacrificed so much trying to give us a better future.”
In high school, she was a quiet, conscientious student: she went to the prom, took AP classes, and graduated with a 3.8 GPA. (A 1982 Supreme Court decision found that children in America are entitled to a public education, regardless of their legal status.) To get into college at Kennesaw University, she applied with a nonresidents’ application form used by foreign students, and paid with money saved from her parents’ cleaning jobs. Once she arrived, she helped found the school’s first chapter of the Latina sorority Lambda Theta Alpha.
Her ordeal started on the Kennesaw campus in March 2010, when she was pulled over by a campus police officer in a parking lot. She’d lingered too long waiting for a space, the officer said, demanding her license. When she handed the officer her identification—an expired Mexican passport and her student I.D.—he arrested her for driving without a license and impeding traffic. She was placed in a holding cell in the Cobb County jail.
Typically, a traffic violation by an undocumented immigrant would result in just a fine, or a night in jail. But in Jessica’s case, U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement notified her that she would be deported. How can that happen when immigration laws are enforced by federal, not local, government? A section of the Immigration and Nationality Act—section 287(g)—authorizes the federal government to allow some local law-enforcement agencies to police immigration status. Cobb County, Georgia, is one of those 77 jurisdictions.
After five days in the Cobb County jail, Jessica was driven to Alabama’s Etowah Detention Center, a stopping place for undocumented immigrants before deportation. “That was it for me,” she says. “I knew then I was going back to Mexico.” After being issued an institutional green uniform, she sat in a cell, waiting to be shipped to some unknown destination across the border. Other than a call to her mother, she wasn’t allowed any goodbyes; she lost 10 pounds in a week. She thought about how, in Mexico, she would need to make her way to her grandparents’ home in Puebla; she hadn’t seen them in a decade.
One day, she caught a glimpse of her sorority sisters on CNN, marching and chanting her name. Until that moment, she had no idea that her case had made the national news. Three days later, on May 4, 2010—37 days after her arrest—Jessica heard her name called. “Get your things,” an officer said. “You’re going home.” The Department of Homeland Security had granted her another year in the U.S., to finish college.
Back in school that fall, Jessica watched a live stream of the December congressional session when the DREAM vote came to the House floor, screaming with excitement when the act narrowly passed the House. “I immediately posted it on Facebook,” she says. She was heartbroken when the act subsequently failed in the Senate. “My future depended on that one vote,” she says. “It felt like any power I had to make my own decisions was taken away at that moment.”
Her yearlong deferment expired in May 2010, and she was granted another year. It’s up to individual judges whether to extend a deferment; in Colotl’s case, the high-profile nature of her case probably worked in her favor. In the meantime, she has been working as a paralegal assistant in Atlanta. When her second deferment is up this May, a judge will decide to send her back to Mexico or defer her again. (Her other family members are not in jeopardy of being deported, as they have not been caught in any kind of felony or misdemeanor, as she was.)
“There are many days when I really freak out, but other days I’m like, ‘OK, I have to keep moving on,’” she says. Even though she’s terrified of what will happen in May, she’s trying to stay positive. Her dream: to go to law school in Georgia and specialize in immigration law. “I believe in the American legal system,” she says. “I want to be given another chance for this country to see my full potential.”