Harvard Case Spotlights Deportation Debate

Many hope a high-profile saga of Harvard student Eric Balderas will help advance federal legislation to give young people brought to the U.S. illegally a path to legal residency. He is one of thousands of young people living under the threat of deportation even as they chase the American dream.

Immigrant advocates are hoping the high-profile case of undocumented Harvard student Eric Balderas will help boost the cause of other illegal immigrants like him.

Balderas, 19, is an academic superstar at Harvard, studying molecular biology and hoping one day to help cure cancer. He was brought to the U.S. by his mother when he was four and went on to become his high school valedictorian and to win a full scholarship to Harvard. He was trying to fly back to school after a visit with his mom in Texas when he was stopped by immigration authorities and led away in handcuffs.

His story immediately made headlines. Advocates rallied for his release and within days authorities agreed to give Balderas a break.

According to immigration advocate Kyle de Beausset, even immigration authorities balked at the idea of deporting a guy like Balderas.

"It really is like deporting [the] best and brightest. It really doesn't really make sense. I think that's why it caught on like this," de Beausset says.

Now that he's got his temporary reprieve, Balderas is declining comment and trying to keep a lower profile.

While everyone agrees that the publicity has helped Balderas, some undocumented students also worry there is a downside for their cause in general.

"It perpetuates this misconception that people have that Eric is some kind of super exception -- that the majority of immigrants are criminals and drug runners, but there is one or two super special, and we should keep those," says Conrado Santos, who's been studying at the University of Massachusetts. "But like I say, that's a misconception."

Santos, 23, is one of what may be hundreds of thousands of other "good kids" who are undocumented. Santos was brought as a child to the U.S. from Brazil. He also excelled in school, went to college and now dreams of being a civil rights lawyer. But he lives in constant fear.

"Every day you think about -- at any minute it could happen -- Immigration comes and hey, you're going back to Brazil," Santos says. "Knowing that all this work I'm putting in could be gone like that. That is what's unbearable."

The Supreme Court has ruled that undocumented youth are allowed to attend public schools. But things get a lot dicier, Santos says, when it's time to get driver's license, a first job or to apply to college.

"When we hit the real-life stuff -- the driver's license, the job, the college -- is when we go oh my God! What am I doing this for? Maybe I should pack up and go," Santos says. "But go where? My home isn't over there! My home is right here in Boston. This is where I grew up. I watch the Celtics and the Red Sox, and this is my home."

Santos says he thought long and hard about revealing his illegal status; he knows he's at greater risk of being deported now. But if the authorities try to do so, Balderas says he also knows he's connected to a community of activists who will make noise and try to help.

Up until Thursday, students had been camped outside the Massachusetts state house protesting a state plan to crack down on illegals.

Students -- like Erica from Guatemala, who did not want to use her last name because she is undocumented -- are also hoping to help jump-start support for the federal DREAM Act, which would offer legal status to young people who are in college or the military. But the proposal has been stuck in Congress for years.

"We're not asking for anything for free. We just want to be part of society. We just want to contribute to this country," Erica says.

It's this kind of appeal that even hard-liners like Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform say they dislike having to reject.

"Nobody feels good about this. Everybody understands that these kids were put in very difficult situation not of their own making. But we need to enforce laws in way that make it clear to parents that if you come to the United States illegally, you are not going to be rewarded and that the only logical decision is to say that it's time to go home."

Mehlman says offering any kind of deal to undocumented students will only encourage more illegal immigration. And he says giving a reprieve to high achiever like Balderas is profoundly unfair.

"Whether you're an honor student at Harvard or you're a dishwasher, law applies equally, and we can't just carve out exceptions for people based on their IQs," Mehlman says.

Ultimately, it's sad for the kids, Mehlman says, but illegal immigrants are no different than anyone else who breaks the law. If you get caught, he says, you end up hurting your family as well as yourself.

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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