- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Marie Gonzalez was a model student at her Jefferson City, Mo., high school — emerging as a track star and graduating with a 3.5 grade-point average.

But her life was turned upside down last year when her parents, who had lived in the United States for 14 years, were discovered to be here illegally. They were deported to Costa Rica when it was revealed that their visitor’s visas had expired years ago.

Born in Costa Rica, Miss Gonzalez, 20, faces similar consequences.

She was one of about 70 immigrant and illegal-alien students from across the country who lobbied on Capitol Hill yesterday, sharing photos and personal stories in an effort to rally co-sponsors for the DREAM Act, a House bill that would allow temporary legal status to illegal-alien students who have been living in the United States for at least five years. The act would allow the students to complete a university degree program or serve time in the military and eventually apply for permanent residency.

“I ask that you could look into this,” the Westminster College sophomore told a staffer for Rep. Russ Carhanan, Missouri Democrat, as she slid a paper across the table yesterday asking that the lawmaker co-sponsor the act.

The students, who included illegal aliens whose visas have expired and U.S.-born citizens who have illegal-alien parents or siblings, also urged lawmakers not vote for any bill that would lead to the separation of families. The Senate is expected to vote today on pending immigration-reform legislation.

Immigration advocates say that without the DREAM Act, the estimated 65,000 illegal aliens who graduate from high school each year will be unable to obtain legitimate employment, contributing to what some say is a drain on public services.

Or they may face deportation.

“These students have never known any other home; America is their home,” said Rich Stolz, immigration co-team leader of Center for Community Change, a District-based immigrant advocacy group. “So, if people are talking about sending them back to someplace else, they’re sending them back to strange and foreign lands that they don’t know.”

Laura Castro, a senior at Lloyd C. Bird High School in Chesterfield, Va., said backlogs have prevented her from obtaining her citizenship, making her ineligible for a work permit that would allow her to pay her way through college. Her visitor’s visa expired nearly five years ago but she says it wasn’t her choice to remain here illegally.

“My father is a U.S. citizen and my mother is here on a work permit,” said Miss Castro, 18, of Columbia, Md. “I’m happy that I’m here because I’ve benefited; I’ve learned English and gotten an education.”

Miss Gonzalez, who hasn’t seen her parents in 10 months, said several circumstances led to her parents’ overstaying their visas: Attorneys told the family members that if they were “model citizens” they would be granted legal status.

Miss Gonzalez, who served as a translator for her parents since age 5, didn’t know any better.

The family — who volunteered regularly at their church, owned a restaurant and paid taxes — could not afford a lawyer once deportation proceedings had begun, Miss Gonzalez said.

She was granted a deferred status in July that allowed her to enroll in college.

Without the DREAM Act, however, the aspiring attorney is worried that she also could be headed back to Costa Rica — a place that she said she barely knows.

“I would love to see something more comprehensive [come out of the Senate] so that families are kept together, because being split up from my parents is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone,” she said. “This is my home, by all means.”

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