Deported Couple Struggles in Colombia

The Associated Press
Sunday, November 18, 2007; 7:08 PM

BOGOTA, Colombia -- "Welcome to your homeland," the immigration official said as he fingerprinted Julio and Liliana Gomez. "Here you'll never be considered illegal."

That's how the couple said they were greeted two weeks ago after being deported from Florida to their native Colombia _ a move that separated them from their sons, whose battle to avoid the same fate has become a test case for hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth in the United States.

The sons _ 18-year-old Juan Gomez and 20-year-old Alex _ were born in Colombia and taken as toddlers by their parents to the United States in 1990. The family later sought political asylum because of threats Julio Gomez said he received from leftist rebels who killed his brother, but the request was rejected and the family ordered to leave the United States in 2003.

Instead, they stayed illegally in Miami.

Their case likely would have gone unnoticed among the thousands of deportations processed every day if not for a text message that Juan _ a recently graduated high school honors student with Ivy League ambitions _ sent to friends as he was being taken away in handcuffs from the family's home in July.

Overnight they mounted a sophisticated campaign on his behalf, contacting lawmakers in Washington and using the popular networking Web site Facebook.

An outpouring of sympathy for Juan and Alex _ even from illegal-immigration critics like CNN pundit Lou Dobbs _ prompted several federal lawmakers to write legislation that lets the brothers stay in the country until 2009, pending action on the bill.

But no such lifejacket was thrown to their parents and 84-year-old grandmother, who are now living with Liliana's sister in Bogota and trying to reacquaint themselves with a country they fear less but barely recognize after nearly two decades in the United States.

Between trips to the mall, where strangers offer hugs of support, they anxiously await news from their children.

"They've never been separated from us their entire lives," Liliana said, wiping away tears. "They don't know how to cook, they can't work and have nobody to take care of them."

Juan, reached by telephone at home in Miami, said the family house "is too big for just two people. It feels so quiet and lonely not having my dad watching TV and my mom cooking dinner."

He said he and brother Alex had been offered jobs by supportive community members _ in a law office and at a hotel, but can't begin until pending working papers arrive.

In a mid-August speech to supporters posted on a Web site dedicated to his case, Juan said "every drop of sweat I've spilled, every ounce of blood I've shed, every single friend I've made, every pledge of allegiance I've recited, and every pivotal point of development in my life has been in the United States. I was not fortunate enough to have been born here, but I was fortunate enough to enjoy my progression from a toddler to a man in this country."

The couple told The Associated Press they sold their small party rental business for $30,000 to be able to support their sons in Florida. Miami Dade College has offered to waive tuition for Juan, who finished near the top of his class but had trouble applying to Harvard because of his undocumented status.

But the money is running out fast.

Despite being deported, Julio Gomez said his family's dream, like that of an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States, remains the American dream.

"God bless America," he said, flashing his U.S. Social Security card. "It's a beautiful country and it gave my children the opportunity to have a better future."

That future is now in peril for increasing numbers of undocumented immigrants, as aggressive immigration enforcement led to a record 27,900 detentions in the 2007 fiscal year ending Sept. 30, about 10,000 more than the previous year, according to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Deportations also rose, from 177,000 two years ago to 261,000.

"It doesn't matter if you succeeded in school or grew up here as infants," said Josh Bernstein of the Washington-based National Immigrant Law Center. "The law is very harsh."

Legislation is pending that would grant permanent residence to students who finish high school and go on to college or the military. Known as the Dream Act, it could benefit some 360,000 graduates and another 715,000 still in school, according to the Migration Policy Institute, an independent Washington think tank.

But the bill has lain idle since it was first proposed in 2001 and was blocked again last month by a Republican-led filibuster in the Senate.

"The Gomez brothers are a symbol of young people who came to the United States because of their parents' decision," said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Florida, a sponsor of the Dream Act. "Their only decision was to work hard, study and make their communities proud."


Associated Press Writer Linda Evarts contributed to this report from Bogota, Colombia.

© 2007 The Associated Press