By Melvin Félix, Sun Sentinel
5:03 PM EST, January 27, 2013
Less than a month after his 22nd birthday, Carlos Rodriguez expected to find himself in Mexico. The young construction worker from Homestead faced a deadline Monday to leave the United States, the only country he's ever really known.
But Rodriguez, who spent four months in a Deerfield Beach detention center for non-criminal undocumented immigrants, won a last-minute reprieve. He can remain in the United States one more year, giving him a chance to gain legal status.
For Rodriguez, the timing couldn't be better.
On Tuesday, President Barack Obama is expected to announce a campaign to overhaul the nation's immigration system, during a visit to Las Vegas, Nev. Also this week, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators is expected to unveil plans for a comprehensive reform package that will address border security along with legal options for the nation's estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants.
"I'm hoping for the best, and that he gives us a chance to get a job and do things the right way," said Rodriguez from his home on Sunday, after learning about Obama's immigration reform plans. "I just hope it's good."
The White House's announcement — coupled with the president's inaugural promise to welcome "striving, hopeful immigrants" instead of expelling them — underscores Washington's renewed interest in the immigration issue. One reason is the overwhelming support that Hispanic voters gave the Democratic Party —71 percent of Hispanics cast ballots for Obama in November, according to most polls. This, combined with the country's changing demographics, also has prompted key Republican leaders to soften their stance on the fate of undocumented immigrants with long-standing ties to the United States.
One example is Rodriguez, who was 6 when he arrived from Mexico with his parents and two younger brothers. Under a previous Obama administration policy, Rodriguez is considered low priority for deportation because he has not been charged with a crime on U.S. soil. In theory, he could also benefit from a separate and more recent policy that favors young people who entered the country as minors.
A June 2011 memo by Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton states that immigration agents may use "prosecutorial discretion" when deciding low-priority cases. It encourages them to use the agency's "limited resources" on prosecuting those who pose a risk to national security, are criminals or gang members.
The second policy is known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, announced in a June 2012 memo by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. It states that so-called "Dreamers," youngsters who entered the country illegally as children, cannot be deported for the next two years if they meet certain guidelines, such as graduating from high school, enrolling in college or enlisting in the Armed Forces. The policy also grants them temporary work permits and, in most states, a driver's license.
But these policies can be subject to interpretation by state officials, immigration judges and deportation officers. For example, some states, such as Arizona, have decided not to grant driver's licenses to young, undocumented immigrants who may qualify under the president's Deferred Action plan.
In Rodriguez's case, he was ordered by an immigration judge last month to leave the country within 30 days or be deported. Yet he was released from detention on Jan. 16 after his case was reconsidered. Immigration authorities declined to comment on the specifics of his case.
The young man's troubles began when police pulled him over in September for driving with a damaged tail-light. Rodriguez was charged with petty theft after his license plate turned out to be stolen, although the charges were later dropped. Rodriguez said he bought the license plate on the black market. He was turned over to ICE and transferred to the Broward Transitional Center, a privately operated detention facility in Deerfield Beach.
Rodriguez, who says he dropped out of high school to work in construction and help his family, attributes his release to a national support group called DREAM Activists, which petitioned authorities on his behalf. Rodriguez is scheduled to appear before an immigration court in Miramar next January, at which time he must show proof that he has obtained legal status.
Under current law, his options are few. He might be able to convince an immigration judge to allow him to stay by marrying his U.S.-born girlfriend, something he says he wants to do, or by obtaining a GED diploma, which could give him temporary legal status under the Deferred Action policy.
Or he might get lucky and benefit from a new immigration system that creates a path to U.S. citizenship for people like him.
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