April 9, 2011

Juan Gomez’s American Dream is so close, he has held it in his hands: an envelope containing a job offer from J.P. Morgan Chase in New York.

But the Georgetown University senior faces another possibility unthinkable for the typical Wall Street recruit: deportation to Colombia, a country he hasn’t seen since he was 2 years old.

The job “is such an opportunity for me and my family,” said Gomez, 22, sitting in the student center at Georgetown with an eCommerce textbook on the table in front of him.

After a remarkable academic rise, this son of a security guard and a hotel maid has just a few final exams to go before . . . what? He can’t be sure if it will be the six-figure security of investment banking or exile from the only culture he has ever known.

“There is no certainty,” he said. “It still feels like it could be just a tease.”

Uncertainty has defined Gomez’s life since the day in 2007 when immigration agents in Miami rousted him and his brother and parents from bed and took them to a detention center. The family had lost a years-long application struggle for political asylum and ignored multiple orders to leave.

His parents were sent back to Colombia. But after a lobbying campaign by his friends and teachers, Juan was allowed to stay, at least until he finished college. Which he will do, magna cum laude, May 21.

Gomez expects to start work at J.P. Morgan soon afterward, although his permission to remain in the United States extends only through next spring. And the temporary work permit he holds as a student, an I-765 visa, is more common among dishwashers than merger-and-acquisition specialists at blue-chip financial firms.

He hopes the work permit will be renewed, but there are no guarantees.

Gomez’s diploma and job offer might not be typical of the thousands of undocumented students in the United States, but his precarious status is. Like many, he yearns for passage of the Dream Act, legislation that would offer a path to permanent residency to immigrant children who go on to higher education or military service. In December, a version of the bill fell five votes short of passage in the Senate.

“He is a perfect example of the kind of person we don’t want to lose,” said Scott Elfenbein, a high school friend who led the fight to keep Gomez in the country. Elfenbein, a senior at Harvard, started a student group to lobby for the Dream Act. “I sure wouldn’t want to get rid of someone who is going to pay that much in taxes and contribute as much to society as Juan is.”

But opponents say the proposed law amounts to a blanket amnesty.

Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA and a leading opponent of the Dream Act, acknowledges that Gomez is a sympathetic figure. But he places the blame for his fix squarely on choices his family made decades ago.

“The reason that people like him can make the claim they are in this tough situation is because his parents were allowed to break the law by holding a job for year after year,” Beck said. “He’s a very compelling case, but because he’s getting this job, there will be an American somewhere down the line who won’t get one.”

A family torn apart

The Gomez family came to the United States on tourist visas in 1990. The father, Julio, a former union administrator, applied for asylum, saying he had been threatened by paramilitary fighters near their home in the mountain town of Pereira.

Their petition was rejected, but the process dragged on for years as Julio and his wife, Liliana, worked menial jobs in Miami and Juan and his older brother, Alex, grew up as American teenagers. They played backyard football, and Juan blazed through AP courses at a selective high school. It was a shock to the boys when agents showed up to arrest all of them.

It was a bigger shock to Juan’s classmates, who were stunned to learn that their friend was an illegal immigrant about to be deported. They organized a campaign to save him that got national media attention. Elfenbein and a teacher went to Washington, eventually securing the best protection of all: a private bill introduced by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) asking immigration officials to review the case of Juan and his brother.

The introduction of the bill gave the Gomez boys a reprieve good for the two-year duration of that Congress. But their parents were put on a plane to Bogota, and the brothers haven’t seen them since. Alex was allowed to continue classes at Miami Dade College, and Juan was allowed to accept a full academic scholarship offered by Georgetown.

Two years later, Dodd introduced a second private bill, giving the brothers another two-year pass. But that Congress has adjourned, Dodd is retired and Juan is about to graduate.

Without their Capitol Hill sponsor, the two applied directly to Immigration and Customs Enforcement to defer action on their deportation orders. It worked, at least for now. In mid-March, they were given another year’s reprieve.

Supporting his parents

For the Gomez family, Juan’s chance to bring down a big-time salary has come in the nick of time. The catering business his parents started in Pereira has foundered, and their father is selling food from a cart in the town square.

The cellphone calls and occasional jumpy video chats on Skype have become increasingly dire, Juan said. He routinely wires them a share of the money he has made from jobs as a busboy at an Outback Steakhouse and a Vietnamese restaurant.

Alex, 23, has dropped out of school in Miami, unable to afford tuition on his salary as a waiter at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. He said he hasn’t worked at all in the past six weeks, after fracturing his ankle playing basketball. Without health insurance, he removed the cast himself.

His brother won’t reveal the salary and bonuses he was offered to join J.P. Morgan’s Latin American division, where he excelled as an intern last summer. But he acknowledges the apparent: It is fat.

“This would be more money than my parents would have made in four or five years in Miami or ever in Colombia,” Gomez said. “It would be life-changing for all of us.”

But the money would come at a price. With his parents prohibited from applying to enter the United States for 10 years after their deportation, staying to work here will mean more years apart. Only legal residency would let him travel to meet them outside the United States, at least if he wants to return.

Both of the Gomez boys say that being separated from their parents has been the hardest part of the upheaval that struck their lives four years ago.

“I’ve been with him when they call him. His voice changes, ‘Hola, Mama,’ ” said Bonjean Koo, one of Juan’s classmates.

Like Gomez, Koo was an intern at J.P. Morgan last summer and was offered a full-time job there. Like him, she is the child of immigrants; her parents came from Korea before she was born. But as a U.S. citizen, she will start her new job without a thought for her status. All through college, she has been back and forth to San Francisco to visit her family.

“That’s something we would try not to bring up with him too much, when we were off to see our parents,” she said. “I know that has been tough for him.”

And for his parents.

“One thousand, two hundred and thirty-five days I haven’t seen my son. Forty-one months,” said Liliana Gomez, reached by phone in Colombia. “It is so hard. They are the best sons in the world, and they are alone.”

Although Gomez has faxed a copy of his work permit to his new employer, that hardly resolves the lingering questions. He still has to get permission from ICE to move to New York. His lack of a passport will be a problem in a division whose associates routinely max out their frequent flier accounts in the first three months of the year. And any paperwork glitch in the federal bureaucracy could cost him his position. (His brother has been fired twice when his renewed permit didn’t arrive in time.)

“I’ve aged a lot during all this,” Gomez said. “I’ve probably lost 50 pounds. My parents would probably not recognize me.” He pauses, considering a future filled with promise and doubt. “Even if I were able to see them again.”

Steve Hendrix came to The Post more than ten years ago from the world of magazine freelancing and has written for just about every page of the paper: Travel, Style, the Magazine, Book World, Foreign, National and, most recently, the Metro section’s Enterprise Team.