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

On Nov. 25, 2003, the government made its final decision and sent a letter to the Gomezes. The family had 30 days to voluntarily leave the country.

The family considered going to Canada, but Julio and Liliana feared starting all over again in a place where they knew no one. Besides, what were the chances they would become legal there? They decided to stay in Miami. Maybe the government would forget about them, just as it had allowed their asylum application to languish for years.

The hope that they'd be forgotten wasn't completely unfounded. One estimate from the Urban Institute puts the number of illegal immigrants here at 9.3 million. Faced with such a vast number, government officials have often said that criminals are the first priority for deportation. New responsibilities after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks also have stretched the immigration agency's limited resources. None of the Gomezes had a criminal record, though Juan recalls his father fretting that it would be hard to renew his driver's license without a legal work permit.

"Forgive me," Liliana Gomez, 52, says now. But anyone in her situation, she believes, would have stayed despite the deportation order. Speaking in Spanish, she says that the family's case for asylum was strong and believes their first lawyer mishandled it. Everything, she maintains, was done for their sons' future: "I can't imagine my sons in Colombia. They think like Americans, and it wouldn't be fair to them, with their desire for educations."

Juan, though, says he begged his parents to leave for Canada. At one point, he even told his classmates that he was leaving the country and collected addresses so he could send letters later. Friends laughed it off as another one of Juan's practical jokes.

By law, public schools accept children without questioning their immigration status, so no one outside his family knew that Juan was now in the country illegally. After a few months, the threat of deportation became like a half-remembered item in the back of a closet. "I honestly didn't think they would come," Alex says. "I didn't think they would get to it."

Juan became comfortable enough to make fun of their situation. Once day, he came into Alex's room and announced, "Immigration's here." Alex recalls panicking, but just for a minute. Juan couldn't keep his face from breaking into laughter.

Soon, Juan became immersed in life at Miami Killian Senior High School. He was taking the most advanced classes and spent hours in his room studying. Classmates often asked him for help because he had a reputation for being patient and unpatronizing.

Juan, however, didn't like asking for help himself. His family couldn't afford a computer, but he didn't want to borrow from friends. Instead, he would spend hours at the library, waiting for a free machine so he could type up his papers. His father, who had to drive him there, would sit patiently until he finished.

Juan aced every class except world history, where he earned a B. Friends and teachers figured he would end up as a CEO of a major company or -- unaware that he hadn't been born in the United States -- maybe even the leader of the free world. Eric Krause, an economics teacher, nicknamed him "President Gomez." Krause says that Juan is one of the best students ever to graduate from Killian.

But at the beginning of his senior year in 2006, Juan could no longer avoid the consequences of his immigration status. Nearly all colleges were closed to him. Most asked about an applicant's residency situation. The biggest exceptions are community colleges, which usually have open enrollment policies. Undocumented teens often attend by paying the higher nonresident tuition. Alex, who had graduated from Killian the previous year, was studying at Miami Dade College and hoped to become a firefighter. The community college was a step down for a student of Juan's caliber, but even if he could be accepted somewhere else, he couldn't afford to go. On financial aid applications, one of the first questions was about citizenship.

At Killian, applying to colleges dominated the talk among seniors. His friend Scott couldn't understand why Juan wasn't applying to any of the top schools. Juan had always been the low-key, no-stress one in their group of high-achieving friends, but his nonchalant attitude about colleges was really grating on Scott. By the end of October, Scott, the super-organized student body president, had already completed his applications to Harvard, Duke and Washington University in St. Louis. Now he began to set deadlines for his friend.


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