Washington Post Magazine: The Outsider

Juan Gomez, a 20-year-old student who may face deportation to his native Colombia, on the Georgetown University campus.
Juan Gomez, a 20-year-old student who may face deportation to his native Colombia, on the Georgetown University campus. (Hector Emanuel)
Phuong Ly
Washington Post Magazine Contributor
Monday, February 23, 2009; 12:00 PM

Juan Gomez came to America illegally as a child. His parents and grandmother had to return to their native Colombia. Now Juan, a Georgetown University student, faces deportation and is fighting to stay.

Washington Post Magazine contributor Phuong Ly was online Monday, February 23 at 12 noon ET to discuss her cover story, "The Outsider."

A transcript follows.


Phuong Ly: Hi, thanks for reading the story and submitting your questions.


Richmond, Virginia: Juan should be able to stay and graduate. He has grown in this country and is an American. It is not his fault his parents brought him when he was two years old. A mind is a terrible thing to waste.

Phuong Ly: Juan's story seemed to generate two types of responses. Here's one.


Cumberland, Md.: This sort of story makes me angry that we fail to enforce our immigration laws. This kid should go back to Colombia and work to make his own country better. I am sorry I don't believe illegal immigrants have any rights to stay in this country regardless of their personal situation. These "sob" stories from WAPO infuriate me. Why is it so difficult to understand the concept of ILLEGAL ALIEN??

Phuong Ly: And here's the other.


Washington, D.C. : Ms. Ly, How did you decide that Juan Gomez deserved a full story on his plight? Why not balance a story like this with perspectives about Latinos who have earned their citizenship through serving in the U.S. military, sometimes posthumously? Or even stories about illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as minors who have gone back to their home countries and then found a legal way to return?

Phuong Ly: Juan's story is a timely one. He was attending his first year at Georgetown, with the possibility of deportation hanging over his head.

I think the Post has published other stories about Latinos earning their citizenship through the U.S. military. There are many facets of the immigration issue, and Juan's story was an attempt to highlight one of them.


Charlotte, N.C.: Your article indicates that only 36 private bills have been passed since 1996. How many bills were not passed on similar facts to Mr. Gomez? Were any passed that had a similar fact pattern?

How did Mr. Gomez get his deportation stayed, e.g. did the fact that a private bill was introduced automatically stay his immigration proceedings or was some other method used?

Having tried to achieve permanent status for my son since 2004 without success, I am outraged at our immigration system and laws. I have been given wrong/bad advice from immigration officials on several occasions.

Phuong Ly: There have been several hundred private bills filed in the last 10 years -- I don't have the exact number. Fewer have been filed in recent years in part because lawmakers know how difficult it is to get one passed by the full Congress.

Getting a private bill introduced by a Senator stays the deportation proceedings, but only temporarily, until the committee votes on the bill or that session of Congress ends.

The few private bills that were passed didn't seem to have any pattern. I cited a couple in the story -- one was for an American couple who adopted a Sri Lankan girl a few days after her 16th birthday, making her ineligible to come to the U.S. Another case involved a Chinese woman whose U.S.-citizen daughter died of an illness a few days before the two were scheduled to go before immigration officials were scheduled to interview them and grant her mother permanent residency.


Washington, D.C.: He applied to Georgetown as an international student. Can't he get a student visa?

Phuong Ly: Not at this time. His case can't be switched like that. Juan is in this country under a temporary stay order.


Bethesda, Md.: Let me get this straight. Juan's parents have 2 children in a country they do not consider to be safe to live in, break the law by staying in this country, partake of the judicial system a number of times (at tax payer expense), are denied sanctuary and then this kid gets a free ride to Georgetown. This is supposed to be a feel good story. This makes my blood boil!!!!! Stop the aid to such countries as Colombia and spend that on the illegals that are here in this country. The issue of illegal (not legal) immigration is tooooo out of control in this country and is affecting so much of American life including finances and safety.

Phuong Ly: Another opinion on Juan's case....


Centreville, Va.: Thanks for paying close attention to one of many cases that are still in the dark but that should give the opportunity to people from other countries to be legal and continue on giving this country some of their knowledge, work and honesty. We are young people that deserve an opportunity.

I am a young person like Juan, and I want to keep trying my best to reach my goals. One of them is to be able to show the world that Colombians are honest, hard workers, and not what the whole world thinks, Colombia is not only the world of drugs and violence. God Bless Him and all the people supporting immigration.

Phuong Ly: ...and an opposing view...


Washington, D.C.: Juan, I am very sorry for your situation, and for the thousands of other people are kept in a similar limbo-like existence by our our broken immigration system. I hope that people who read this article realize that your family is just one of the many thousands who have been torn apart by our incoherent laws and policies.

I also hope you are not spending too much time studying -- you probably already know that the quickest way to resolve your situation would be to marry a US citizen! Go out and date, young man.

Phuong Ly: ...and some advice for Juan...


Georgetown Law: I received my clinical legal training in asylum law from Prof. Schrag while at Georgetown Law. I very much enjoyed your story and your mention of Prof. Schrag's study of the wildly varying rates of asylum grants, depending on the immigration judge who hears a refugee's case.

My question: will this article in any way harm Juan by reminding ICE about him? ICE has been known to "go after" undocumented immigrants who are profiled in the media.


Phuong Ly: ICE is well aware of Juan's situation. When he left Miami to go to Georgetown, he had to file to get special permission to leave the state of Florida. When he left Georgetown to visit Miami for Xmas break, again, he had to file paperwork.


New York, N.Y.: If Georgetown has admitted Mr. Gomez with a full scholarship as an "international student," then he should have that legal documentation. He does not -- so what is his status other than undocumented immigrant? Unless there is a scholarship designed for undocumented immigrants which Mr. Gomez would qualify for, Georgetown could better spend their scholarship money on an international student with proper credentials or given the current economic situation, a worthy student who is an American citizen. After all, Mr. Gomez has already received a substantial scholarship courtesy of the American taxpayer. There are just too many young Americans struggling to pay for college for me to support any effort to keep Mr. Gomez, a citizen of Columbia in the United States. Let him return to the country of his birth and apply for legal entry status. Then he can qualify as an international student.

Phuong Ly: Georgetown is well aware of Juan's situation. When he applied to the school, he sent them paperwork explaining his legal status and wrote an essay about his arrest and detention by immigration enforcement. He is currently in this country on a legal, temporary status.


Lyme, Conn.: What does anyone gain by deporting this student? We as a nation lose the potential services of what appears will be an intelligent employee. He would be forced to live in a country of which he is unfamiliar. I also know I am in the minority in arguing this, yet I don't know why we force our foreign students to return home for one year when we could have that year of their services, especially at a time when employees are retiring in many important professions at faster rates than colleges are graduating their replacements. In my opinion, we need to be a leader in attracting quality global employees in a worldwide economy and not posing roadblocks to their working here.

Phuong Ly: Another view of Juan's situation.


Alexandria: "Richmond, Virginia: Juan should be able to stay and graduate. He has grown in this country and is an American. It is not his fault his parents brought him when he was two years old. A mind is a terrible thing to waste."

Perhaps his parents should have thought about what the future consequences might be before they decided to break US law.

Phuong Ly: And another opposing one....


Arlington, Va.: As a Latino myself, I certainly applaud Juan's achievements and I wish him the best of luck, however, I also would like to know what are the criteria G'town U employed to label an illegal immigrant as an "international student" knowing the strict requisites needed for it.

An international student (F1 visa) is supposed to have financial support from his native country and evidence that he has no intention of abandoning residence in his home country -- Colombia (strong family ties, pre-arranged job in your home country or other economic ties, etc.), he actually doesn't even fulfill some of the requirements Georgetown itself asks for.

Juan is almost done with his studies, let him graduate but then he will have to return to Colombia, he's still an illegal immigrant anyway and he must comply with our laws. With his academic credentials I don't see why he couldn't get a good government job or consulting position in Colombia or a position in one of the international organizations, such as the IMF, WB right here in downtown D.C. I feel sorry for his predicament but I put the blame on his parents who wasted precious time pursuing a status as political refugees without having the means to prove it instead of looking for legal assistance which could have gotten them legal residence.

Phuong Ly: Unfortunately, I don't know why Georgetown decided to admit Juan or give him a scholarship. School officials refused comment.


Washington, D.C.: I deeply sympathize with this case but am also conflicted. I am just an ordinary person who legally applied to be a US citizen, since the increase in fees last year and an already huge backlog my case is still pending even though (along with many others) even though I've taken the citizenship test and passed. Even worse is the delay in DC, as we don't have an office (even though we're the nation's capital) we have to go to VA and wait for paperwork to be transferred to DC courts, and it only happens once a month. Virginians can take the test and have their oath ceremony the same day. I have done everything legally and am extremely frustrated because my work options are limited, my grad school apps are pending, and my work visas have to keep being renewed while I wait. I am hardly making ends meet and have used up all my savings. The more illegal persons there are clogging up the system affects how quickly immigration can process all the legal applications. The situation in DC really needs to be looked at, we need a local office or they need to speed up the oath ceremony process.

Phuong Ly: I can certainly sympathize with your situation. I have heard about the long lines and delays in the Virginia office, which seems to be the case in nearly every office around the country.


Alexandria, Va.: To Washington D.C.:

This is a gross misunderstanding of many people. I am an American citizen married to an "illegal" immigrant and have been married to him for 8 years and we have a child. There is no current path for him to become legal under the current laws. People need to wake up and understand that marriage to a citizen makes no difference in these cases.

Phuong Ly: A response to the person to suggested that Juan marry a U.S. citizen.


WDC: I appreciated the story by the Post to put a positive face on an undocumented immigrant -- versus the negative face that the undocumented immigrant involved in the Chandra Levy case will put on the immigration issue. I believe that so many people do not realize that entering into the country illegally is not a serious crime under federal law -- it is not a felony, meaning that undocumented immigrants are not criminals.

Immigrants come to the U.S. because opportunities lack in their own country. Americans who were born in the U.S. did not receive this privilege because they were more deserving than those born outside its borders but simply by luck. We should share what we have with those less fortunate, just as we would want others' help if we had been born in developing countries without an infrastructure available to support us.

Phuong Ly: Here's one view.


Washington, D.C.: There are a lot of hard working immigrants who are here illegally. They pay taxes, try to follow the laws and live "decent" lives.

They're not following the laws, though. And laws are laws. We either need to fix the laws or adhere by them.

As good of a person as Juan is portrayed to be, we all (including Juan, himself) know that he is breaking the law.

Phuong Ly: And a differing one.


Arlington, Va.: Great Article, Phuong, we need more articles that shed light on the immigrant experience. I hope that the Washington Post will be publishing more articles on this subject because it really is an American Issue and I hope the debate is addressed in an intelligent and prudent matter. We need legislation that address the dilemma of undocumented immigrant children in this country, we cannot have these Draconian immigration laws in the 20th Century. Seperating parents from their children create problems that we as a society have to address in the future.

Phuong Ly: There seems to be some movement from various lawmakers to reintroduce the Dream Act in this session of Congress. That was a bill that would allow kids like Juan (who came to this country at a young age) to win permanent residency if they complete higher education or certain years of military service. The last time the bill was introduced, in 2007, it was rejected by the Senate. It might be worth noting that then-Sen. Barack Obama voted in favor of the Dream Act.


Alexandria, VA: I was so touched by Juan's story. His academic achievements are impressive - not only getting into Georgetown in the first place, but excelling in his studies while being away from his parents and brother, and facing the threat of deportation. That's a lot to deal with when you're 20. Juan shouldn't be penalized - he and his brother should be allowed to remain in the US; I, for one, would be proud to call him a fellow citizen. Could you give us information, perhaps through The Post, on how we can send him messages of support?

Phuong Ly: His case is being represented by the Florida Immigration Advocacy Center. His attorneys are Cheryl Little and Kelleen Corrigan and they can be reached through the center. http://www.fiacfla.org/contact.php


Arlington, Va.: Much was made in the story about the financial plight of Juan and his brother and seemed to link their immigration status with their struggle to make ends meet. The fact is that many college students and their parents, regardless of status, find it hard to finance college and the attendant living expenses. It seems to me that even if Juan's parents had been legal, their chosen business pursuit would still have made it hard to finance a full ride at Georgetown.

Phuong Ly: Very true. Tuition, fees, room and board at Georgetown can run up to $50,000. Juan was very lucky to get a large scholarship, especially considering that very few scholarships are available to anyone who is not a U.S. citizen. Not being a citizen drastically limits the financial aid that a student can apply for.


Madison, Wisc.: Wow, I'm pretty horrified by some of the comments here. For one thing, Georgetown is a private university, so it isn't your and anyone's tax dollars paying for his scholarship, so you can chill about that. But it bothers me immensely that so many people are apparently of the attitute that such a smart, promising young man who has the potential to contribute a lot of good to our society should just be told "tough sh-t", because he had the bad luck to be born in a politically unstable and unsafe country. How many of those people wouldn't have tried to make a better life for their children had they found themselves in a similar situation?

Phuong Ly: Another view on Juan's story.


Arlington, Va.: I was surprised that your article didn't deal more with the issue of the degree to which his parents are responsible for his current situation. It seems that the most difficult part of the problem -- that he may be deported to a country that he has no ties to -- is 100% his parents' fault. They knowingly broke the laws and brought their child up in a country with a very different culture, knowing they could be deported at any time. It seems they could have taken steps to better inform their son about the country had a very real possiblity of being deported to.

I also didn't understand why this case was considered a "special" one -- there are thousands of children who have lived most of their lives here who are subject to deportation -- the fact that he goes to Georgetown and they don't doesn't make their loss any less. and the idea that losing him was a particular blow to our nation -- the loss of a talented individual -- made little sense given that there are literally hundreds of thousands of scientists, etc. with PhDs who are trying for legal entry to the US and are denied, and these people have far more achievements under their belts than merely getting into G-town.

Phuong Ly: And another one...


Cambridge, Mass.: There is a lot of discussion about how bad the U.S. education systems are, but this young man is a product of U.S. education systems and seems like the kind of intelligent person that this country should not lose. Do any lawmakers who are taking a very hard line on immigration recognize any peril in the parodoxes its position seems to create (in favor of education, but then destroying its investment/wanting immigrants to assimilate, then denying the assimilation/upholding laws, but to the detriment of those laws' purpose)? It seems that Mr. Gomez' case throws an enormous question mark into the debates.

Phuong Ly: Yes, there are a lot of nuances to the immigration issue. I quoted a couple of groups in my story who were in favor of stricter immigration regulation, but they acknowledged that they did feel sympathetic towards someone like Juan, who came to this country when he was 2.


Washington, D.C.: I was very, very touched by Juan's story. And I too paid the fees, stood in line, and waited for a long time to be able to become a US citizen. But just because I had to do that, does not mean that I agree Juan should be deported. Or that I think he should go through the same. He's been here since he was 2; he grew up here; this is his country. And this country would benefit from having someone who enjoys learning, who wants to accomplish, who just might have fresh ideas to help our ailing economy. Juan, I hope you get to stay.

Phuong Ly: A view from another immigrant...


Centreville, Va.: Comment: I am thanking my father. I'd like to tell you that there are lots more happy stories who followed the immigration steps legally and the hard way. My father came to this country with a visitor visa in 1983. He went thru all the paperwork to get different types of visas, get a work permit, etc. He worked very hard at an auto body shop in DC for a year to get his green card so that I could come to this country with my green card.

Phuong Ly: Another view from another immigrant....


Phuong Ly: Our time is up. Thanks so much for reading the story and weighing in with your opinions.


Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company