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Groups Try to Delay Deportations

Rigoberto Padilla, 21, came to the USA from Mexico when he was 6.

He went to school in Chicago, joined the honor society and dreamed of becoming a lawyer - all while living here illegally.

Padilla's status wasn't a problem until he applied for college and couldn't qualify for financial aid without a Social Security number, he says.

In January, the University of Illinois-Chicago junior was charged with drunken driving. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, paid a fine and got court supervision, but that brought him to the attention of immigration officials and triggered deportation proceedings. "It was one mistake in my life," he says.

Padilla's impending deportation, originally set for today, catapulted him into a campaign to stop the deportation of college students and recent graduates. Lawmakers, students, members of the clergy and other activists hope to buy the students time and use their stories to push for laws that would allow them, and perhaps millions of other illegal immigrants, to earn legal status, says Joshua Hoyt of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agreed last week to delay Padilla's deportation for a year, making him one of at least seven young illegal immigrants who have had their deportations delayed since June, according to DreamActivist, one of the groups spearheading the campaign. Family ties and community standing are among the factors ICE considers when asked to delay a deportation, says ICE spokesman Richard Rocha.

"I want to graduate college and give back to this country," Padilla says.

His supporters flooded the Department of Homeland Security with thousands of faxes and designed a Facebook page telling 2,800 members how to help. The Chicago City Council passed a resolution in his behalf, and Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., introduced a bill specifically for him that would allow him to stay. "Why would we deprive ourselves of outstanding students and future leaders?" she asks. "They had no part in the decision to come here."

Efforts toward overhaul

There are 12 million illegal immigrants in the USA. Activists call for an overhaul of immigration law that would offer them a way to earn legal status. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., introduced a bill Tuesday that would give illegal immigrants who pay fines, pass background checks and meet other requirements a path toward legal residency.

College students who are illegal immigrants fall under a separate proposal called the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act - the DREAM Act. Requirements would include arrival in the USA at 15 or younger, a five-year residency or more, and at least two years of college or military service. Versions of the act have been introduced since 2001 without success.

Each year, 65,000 illegal immigrants who have been here at least five years graduate from high school, says Jeffrey Passel of the non-partisan Pew Hispanic Center.

Deportation delays are rare, Rocha says; 400 were granted last year.

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates less immigration, calls the DREAM Act amnesty, or "rewarding people who have broken the law with immigration benefits."

People in the country illegally "should be held responsible for the consequences to their children," he says.

Flexibility in the law is important, says Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies, which also calls for reduced immigration. "But delaying everybody's deportation because you hope the DREAM Act is going to happen does not make sense."

Other cases

Padilla and others hope for passage:

- Herta Llusho, 20, of Detroit came to the USA from Albania on a tourist visa when she was 11. Her mother applied for asylum, she says, but it was denied, leaving them both with a deportation date of Aug. 19.

After supporters faxed more than 5,000 letters to ICE, she says, the University of Detroit Mercy sophomore and her mother won two delays. Their deportation was set for Feb. 1. Llusho hopes for another delay or for a lawmaker to introduce a bill on her behalf. "All we want is to work hard and keep at it and give back to the country that we believe has given so much to us," she says.

- Alonso Chehade, 22, of Poulsbo, Wash., arrived from Peru with his family on a tourist visa when he was 14. They stayed after it expired, he says. He was detained at the Canadian border in March when he says he crossed into Canada after going the wrong direction on the freeway.

Chehade, who received a bachelor's degree in business administration from the University of Washington this year, faced deportation on Sept. 25. He created a website and Facebook page to gather support. Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., introduced a bill on his behalf, and his deportation was pushed to Jan. 5. Chehade hopes for another delay or a special bill. "My life is here, my family is here, my friends are here," he says.

In Chicago, Padilla, who came to the USA illegally with family, is trying to figure out how to pay for his next semester of college and competing with his sister for a title: He says, "I want to be the first one in my family to graduate from college."

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