The Outsider

Though he's lived in this country since he was 2, Juan Gomez has no permanent legal right to stay in the United States, let alone a guarantee of a chance to graduate from Georgetown University

By Phuong Ly
Sunday, February 22, 2009; Page W10

As the car pulled within sight of the stone Gothic spires, Juan Gomez sat up straighter. Everything at Georgetown University seems made to reach higher -- the turreted buildings that hark to another era, the thick oaks shading the quad, and the students who walk with confidence and purpose.

For several minutes, Juan, who'd only seen photographs of the campus before, simply stared. A friend's mother who accompanied him on that late-August day last summer recalls that the brown-haired 19-year-old looked just like any other student in his jeans and polo shirt. But Juan felt as if he had landed in another universe -- a place light years away from the deportation letters, detention center jumpsuits and painful goodbyes of the previous year.

"Wow," he told his friend's mother, bounding up the steps to his new dorm. "This is so beautiful."

Juan was still beaming as he examined the sterile, white-walled space in Copley Hall that he would share with another student. "This room," he said, gazing at the two twin beds, two wooden desks and two dressers squeezed together, "is just great." He meant it. Juan felt lucky to be at Georgetown, even though, in terms of academic accomplishment, he clearly belonged there.

His record is a litany of overachievement: a 1410 out of 1600 on the SAT; high scores on 13 Advanced Placement exams, which earned him close to two years of college credit; and a top-20 class rank at a competitive Miami high school. But Juan doesn't have a clear right to be in the United States, much less at Georgetown. In 1990, when he was 2 years old, his family came to this country from Colombia on a tourist visa and never left. Once they were here, they applied for political asylum and spent almost 17 years building a modest life before their legal status finally caught up with them. In October 2007, after they were repeatedly denied political asylum, Juan's parents and grandmother were deported to Colombia, a country that Juan can't even remember.

Juan and his brother, Alex, have been spared, though it's not clear for how long. Thanks to Juan's academic achievements and intense lobbying by friends and supporters, lawmakers temporarily halted his deportation, a rare privilege. Juan applied to Georgetown as an international student and won a scholarship that covers most of his tuition and expenses. But unless Congress or the Obama administration grants him some sort of extension or waiver, Juan could be deported before he's able to graduate, according to his lawyers. He might not be allowed to return for at least 10 years, if ever.

As he settles into Georgetown, Juan says he can't afford to dwell on his precarious status. "I've been given this opportunity, and if I don't take full advantage of it," he says, "I'll never forgive myself for it."

Juan speaks in a serious, even tone. The trim beard that he began growing after his family was deported makes him seem even older. But his demeanor masks a mischievous streak, of which his friends are frequently the target.

After arriving in Washington, Juan quickly made use of a new cellphone number with a 202 area code. He called his friend Scott Elfenbein, who had spearheaded the campaign to prevent his deportation. Pretending to be a think tank director, Juan offered Scott an internship because of "what you've done for immigrants."

"I totally fell for it," Scott says. "We're so used to him making jokes like that, but I still fell for it."

Besides his close friendships and sense of humor, Juan's other refuge is schoolwork. He usually waves off offers from friends to get together at the library. Instead, he holes up in his dorm room, sitting at his desk until the early morning hours. Among the messy stacks of paper and books, he becomes absorbed in work for his business classes: How can information systems be used for strategic purposes? Does this company have a financially sound balance sheet? What are the strengths of Wal-Mart versus Target? When he studies, everything but the work itself fades away.

"I focus on my academics," he says." I focus on what I can control."

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