Aggie fighting order
By JANET PHELPS
Eagle Staff Writer
Two months ago, Texas A&M University senior Walter Sosa was working part-time and meticulously planning what life would be like after graduation next year.
He would use his degree in engineering technology and industrial distribution, along with his solid B average and experience in fixing computers, to get a job with a software company.
But on a cool October morning 10 1/2 weeks ago, Sosa -- who moved with his parents to the United States from Guatemala when he was 5 -- was handcuffed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials and taken to a deportation center in Houston. He was told he would be sent back to his homeland.
He graduated from a Houston high school with honors, second in a class of 450 students, and was accepted automatically to Texas' second largest public university, but Sosa is not an American citizen and doesn't have a student visa.
His life, he learned in those sobering hours early on Oct. 10, would never be the same.
The 22-year-old who grew up speaking Spanish at home and eating Guatemalan food doesn't remember the days when he couldn't speak English. He has only vague memories of the country where he was born.
"I was thinking, 'Wow, it's the last time I'll ever see this,'" Sosa said, recalling how he stared out the car window as agents drove him away from the A&M campus. He assumed he would never be allowed to return and finish his degree.
Sosa's family has been caught up in a lengthy appeals process since their visitors' visa expired in 1996, after five years. Still, a deportation order wasn't issued for the family until July, when their most recent appeal was denied, Sosa said. His parents worked with lawyers starting in 1992 to secure permanent residency.
The order issued in July by an immigration judge gave them two months to leave the U.S. voluntarily, but Sosa said no one told his family they had to leave, and no document ever arrived in the mail.
"It really caught us by surprise," he said, adding that he's being asked to leave the only country he knows as home.
"I feel like an American; everything I know is here," he said. "To be told you have to leave now, to leave after 17 years of life -- that's pretty hard."
Sosa is one of thousands of young people whose parents brought them to the U.S. as children and now are caught in the middle of an immigration nightmare they didn't create, officials said.
Nationwide, around 360,000 high school graduates between 18 and 24 years old were brought to the U.S. before they were 16, and they now live in the same situation as Sosa, according to estimates from the Migration Policy Institute, which is based in Washington, D.C.
Many were raised in the U.S. and are culturally American, but they lack legal residency status because they were brought to the U.S. illegally or remained in the U.S. after their legal status had expired, according to Joseph Vail, a Houston attorney. He served four years as a federal immigration judge with the U.S. Department of Justice and later founded the immigration clinic at the University of Houston Law Center.
Public schools are required to educate all children through the 12th grade, regardless of their legal status, as mandated in a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, but Congress passed a law in 1996 forbidding states to offer in-state tuition to illegal immigrants who attend college. A loophole in the law allowed Texas, along with nine other states, to permit students without legal status to attend college at in-state tuition rates as long as they graduated from a high school in the same state.
Even with the open secret that acknowledged and encouraged illegal immigrants to enroll in college, it's rare for them to be deported, Vail said. Instead, the agency typically focuses its efforts on those with deportation orders or people with a criminal history, not students, he said.
Immigration spokeswoman Leticia Zamparripa, who is based in Houston, said last week that she could not comment on Sosa's case, citing an Immigration and Customs Enforcement policy that prevents employees from talking about ongoing legal cases.
"[Sosa] can talk to you all he wants, but as a government agency and a government employee, I don't have that liberty," she said.
Although the agency doesn't keep track of the number of college students who are deported each year, it isn't common for students to be apprehended on campus, Zamarripa said.
What's even more rare about Sosa's case, officials said, is the stay of deportation he received after spending three days in the deportation center in Houston. The unusual reprieve will allow Sosa to finish his degree at A&M next December before returning to Guatemala, officials said.
It was unclear how many students in Sosa's situation are enrolled at Texas A&M and Blinn College.
From class to cell
Sosa said he had an inkling that immigration officers would be coming for him that day in October. Earlier that morning, Immigration and Customs agents had arrived at the house where Sosa grew up and in which his parents still lived with his 15-year-old sister, who was born in the U.S. and is a citizen.
They arrested Sosa's father as he was leaving for work at a factory where he made oil drill pipes, Sosa said.
Frantic, Sosa's mom called him at 6:30 a.m. from Houston to let him know officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement had told her they would be coming for him within days, he said.
"She was crying," he said. "She couldn't even talk to me. She barely got that much out."
Sosa didn't know what to do after he hung up, but he had a feeling the agents were on their way, he said.
"I was in shock," he said. "I decided to just go to class to get it off my mind."
In class, Sosa told his friends, who already knew he was not in the country legally, to call his lawyer and his family to let them know if immigration contacted him, he said.
After class ended, Sosa was standing outside Thompson Hall talking with friends about an upcoming group project when immigration officials approached him and asked his name, he said. He confirmed what they already knew. The two immigration officers searched Sosa before putting him in handcuffs and placing him in an unmarked car, he said.
"All my friends were watching me get put in a car," he said.
Outpouring of support
As soon as Sosa's friends saw him being driven away, they alerted A&M administrators, faculty and staff, and all began working to secure his release, A&M officials and Sosa said. It started with Sosa's close friends and teachers, who began spreading the word and writing letters to immigration officials, he said.
"There was such a huge outpouring of student support," A&M engineering technology professor Rainer Fink said. Fink said his department received hundreds of e-mails from students around the world expressing support for Sosa within 24 hours of his arrest.
U.S. Congressman Chet Edwards, D-Waco, said last week that he learned about Sosa's situation in October through a letter from Texas A&M University Interim President Ed Davis.
"[Sosa] is paying a price for the decisions made by his parents years ago," Edwards said. "It seems that when [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is enforcing the law, there should be a better way to do it than to walk on campus and put handcuffs on a student."
It was not an official university effort, A&M Vice Provost Luis Cifuentes pointed out, but many faculty members and administrators independently wrote letters to immigration officials and to Edwards on Sosa's behalf.
Cifuentes said supporting Sosa was the right thing to do in the situation.
"[Sosa] was making something of himself. He was doing well. He was within earshot of finishing his degree," he said. "This is one of those human stories that go beyond politics, and that's why I think so many people reacted so quickly."
Meanwhile, Sosa struggled to adjust to the idea of returning to a country he barely remembered, he said.
Once Sosa arrived at the immigration center, he was fingerprinted and his personal belongings -- including his driver's license, Social Security card, work permit and laptop -- were taken from him, he said. He was placed in a holding cell while his paperwork was processed and later moved to a deportation center just around the corner, Sosa said.
He was placed with a larger group of immigrants, and given a blue jumpsuit and a quick medical exam before being assigned to a dorm room with about 20 other men, he said.
For three days he stayed in the deportation center awaiting a return flight to Guatemala, he said. He never saw his father, who was being held at the same center but in a different location, he said.
On his second day, Sosa's mother visited along with lawyer Elise Wilkinson, who asked Sosa if she could represent him, he said.
"[Wilkinson] told me I didn't really have any chances," Sosa said. "But she told me she would try."
Wilkinson also told Sosa that some of his friends and teachers were protesting outside the immigration office, he said. The next day, Wilkinson returned.
"She was pretty much jumping up and down," he said.
Wilkinson told Sosa that an immigration official whose office had been flooded by letters and faxes asking for Sosa's release wanted to speak with him, he said.
The official asked Sosa why he didn't leave the U.S. when he was told to, Sosa recalled, adding that he told the official that his family didn't know they were supposed to leave.
"I told him we were misinformed. I couldn't tell if he believed me," Sosa said. "I told him, 'If I have to leave, I'll leave. There's nothing you can do being here in this situation.'"
Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials then granted Sosa a stay of deportation through December 2008 so he could finish his degree, he said.
"I'm glad that [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] showed some common-sense decency in allowing him to stay until graduation," Edwards said last week.
The congressman said he did not play a direct role in Sosa's release but said his office has ongoing discussions with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"Once [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] starts the enforcement process, our view has been that it's not appropriate for political pressure to be applied," he said.
Sosa's lawyer, who has been practicing immigration law in Houston since 1995, said she's never seen a stay of deportation issued in a case like Sosa's.
"A stay of deportation is really a rare bird, it only happens in rare cases," Wilkinson said.
For the scores of students who graduate college each year without legal status and then can't secure a job in the U.S., there only are a few avenues that allow them to apply for legal status or citizenship, said Vail with the law center.
It's an impossible situation, he said.
"The backlog in most of these categories goes back 10 or 15 years," he said. "They have no options. We're stuck in a stalemate here in what everybody admits is a bad position."
A bill -- known as the Dream Act by its supporters -- that would have provided a path to legal residency and ultimately citizenship for students like Sosa who graduated from a U.S. high school and were brought to this country before they were 16 failed in Congress in October.
"There is no way for them to [stay in the U.S.] lawfully. The Dream Act was a law that would make it possible," he said.
Sosa said the Dream Act seemed too good to be true, and he doesn't hold any hopes of being allowed to stay past graduation.
"I'm not really mad. I understand they're just trying to do their job," he said. "There's a part of me that wishes something could happen. I'm trying not to get my hopes up. It doesn't look very good."
The events of the past few months have forced Sosa to grow up -- with his father still awaiting deportation in the Houston center, Sosa has been working odd jobs and sending money to his mom and sister in Houston to help pay bills, he said. He's also been saving money up for his return to Guatemala.
"My dad was the one who always took care of us. Now I'm wondering what we're going to do," he said.
Sosa said he plans to leave when his time is up, although he worries about what he will do when he returns to Guatemala. His Spanish is imperfect, he admits, and he barely knows his extended family in Guatemala.
"I don't want to go back," he said.
• Janet Phelps' e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org