Obama's deportation stay late for some immigrants

Associated Press Modified: June 17, 2012 at 6:00 pm •  Published: June 17, 2012
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TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — Marlon Roberto Cortes was stocking shelves in the frozen food section of a suburban Boston supermarket when he was summoned to the back office.

An immigration officer was waiting for him and asked to see his ID, which he didn't have. The 20-year-old Honduran was told there was an order to deport him, and agents handcuffed and hauled him to a holding center. He was sent back to his native country in March without being able to say goodbye to his family.

Cortes missed by three months President Barack Obama's decision last week to allow hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants no older than 30 with high school degrees and no criminal history a chance to stay and work in the country. The president has said that as many as 800,000 young illegal immigrants living in the U.S. could benefit from the change.

From Guatemala to Argentina, recently deported young people who had dreamed of becoming U.S. citizens reacted to Friday's announcement with a mix of frustration and sadness, but also relief that siblings left behind might now be able to stay without fear of deportation.

"I am a person who studied and I wish I could aspire to far greater things," said Cortes. "I'm sad."

"The country in which I could have had the chance to get ahead is the United States," he added. "I did everything I had to do to get that and I don't understand why they wouldn't let me ... I feel more American than Honduran."

Yannick Grijalba, an 18-year-old Guatemalan with fluent English who was deported on Wednesday after living 11 years in Northern California, was equally frustrated.

"When I was watching the news today and heard, I just couldn't believe it," he said last week in Guatemala City. "I had to turn the TV off."

It's unclear how many deported immigrants just missed their chance like Cortes because there are no available statistics that classify them by age or education. The United States deported 396,906 people from Oct. 1, 2010 through Sept. 30, 2011. But one can spot the young and recently deported on Latin America's streets, where they sometimes fumble with their Spanish and have trouble fitting in.

To Cortes, it was like being thrown a life preserver too late and he says his future looks bleak.

On his first day back in Tegucigalpa, the young man with braces and hair gelled straight back had to wake up before 5 a.m. to work with his grandparents selling baleadas, wheat tortillas stuffed with beans and meat, outside a hospital.

He said he has been stopped a couple of times by men on the streets of Honduras, which has a gang problem and among the world's highest homicide rates. "I don't even know the words, the rules and the signals they make," he said. "I am afraid to be on the streets alone. And if someone says I am a gringo, it is very dangerous for me because they will think I have money and will assault me."

Cortes noted that he graduated from a Chelsea, Massachusetts high school and would have met all the criteria of the new U.S. policy, which says that the immigrant must have been brought to the U.S. before they turned 16, be no older than 30 and have been in the country for at least five continuous years.

Now back in Honduras, Cortes calls his mother's cellphone every week or so to talk with her and her younger sister in the U.S, and tries to keep in touch with them and others on Facebook.

"I keep up with all of my high school friends through Facebook," said Cortes. "We miss each other very much. I don't know if we are ever going to see each other again."

In Grijalba's case, his family flew from Guatemala to New York City with tourist visas in 2000.

The family later moved to Fairfield, California where Grijalba became an honor-roll student and competed on the wrestling team at a local high school. Halfway through his junior year, he got into a fist fight with a boy from school over a girl. It led to an assault charge in juvenile court.

Maibe Casalins, a Miami-based immigration attorney, said that someone like Grijalba could still qualify because juvenile records are not considered a criminal conviction under immigration laws. U.S. immigration courts give wide leeway to prosecutors and agents in determining whether an individual has the right to stay.

Grijalba kept on studying at the juvenile detention center and was hoping to graduate so he could go to a community college and earn a degree as a mechanic. Like some of the other deported young Latin Americans, Grijalba believes that the chance for a good education is among the most important things he has lost.

"I would then get a job, save and go on to a university and study architecture," Grijalba said of his earlier plans.

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