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The Outsider: Juan Gomez Is Studying at Georgetown University -- and Facing Deportation

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An estimated 65,000 young people in the United States graduate from high school each year in circumstances similar to Juan's, according to the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research group in Washington. These are teenagers who have been in the country at least five years, say researchers who prepared the 2003 study by analyzing population surveys and census data. When they finish high school, they watch their friends go off to college or work, and discover that it is impossible for them to do the same.

In 2007, the Senate considered and rejected the Dream Act, which would have given these young people a chance to become legal permanent residents. Critics of the bill warn that such exceptions would encourage people to come here illegally, particularly if they had young children in tow.

"Any time you give an amnesty for people who have broken the law, that gives an incentive for more people to break the law," says Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, an Arlington group that lobbies to reduce immigration. Yet Beck acknowledges that he feels torn about Juan, who arrived at such a young age, saying that "on an individual basis, this sounds like the kind of person who you want to have some sort of leeway for." Where, then, does Juan belong?

A couple of months into the fall semester, Juan walks along Georgetown's brick paths, nodding occasionally at familiar faces. He has just completed his midterm exams and feels good about his classes. In the afternoon, he plans to play football with a group of friends. College life has become as comfortable as the gray, hooded Georgetown sweat shirt he often wears.

Juan is majoring in finance, and he's full of ideas about what he could do with his degree. He could start his own company, work for an investment firm or go to law school. With credits already earned from high school and a Florida community college, he could graduate as early as May 2010.

Juan checks the stock market daily and finds its gyrations fascinating. The weekly meetings of the student investment club, whose members compete in an online investment game, rank among Juan's favorite activities. Even losing $100,000 of pretend money and finishing next to last in his group hasn't dampened Juan's enthusiasm. He describes the ailing stock market with an optimism shaped by his youth and own experience: "You have to be confident in the systems that are there. Eventually, it will go back to being a boom."

Here, as at all colleges, life often revolves around the future. Students have just finished unpacking, but they're already being asked to sign up for housing for next year. During an orientation for transfer students, Juan made several friends who want to live together next year. They've decided to apply for a university apartment with three bedrooms. Juan is excited: The apartments are newer and nicer than the dorms. The friends could have their own living room and kitchen -- no more sharing with an entire hall. Imagine the parties.

Juan pauses, remembering a detail. "If it all works out," he says quietly, "if we're all still here."

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Juan and his family came to the United States as vacationers in August 1990. Toting six suitcases of clothes and tourist visas, they flew into John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. But when the visas expired after six months, they stayed and eventually moved to Florida, where they filed an application for political asylum. The family of four -- father Julio, mother Liliana, Juan and his older brother, Alejandro, or Alex -- had lived a middle-class life in Colombia. Julio oversaw finances for a company that managed pensions for the government and other businesses. But, suddenly, he quit his job.

"My sons don't know much about it, and I don't want to go too deeply into it," says Julio, 54, speaking in Spanish from Pereira, a mountain city in western Colombia. In the petition for asylum, the family says that one of Julio's brothers, a niece and a nephew were murdered for political reasons. Fernando Rojas, the last lawyer who worked on the family's case in Miami, says that Julio received threats from a guerrilla group because of his job. Rojas declined to give further details, saying that he still fears for Julio's safety in Colombia.


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