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Marc J. Kawanishi/Genesis Photos for WORLD

A dream deferred

Immigration | As border security becomes the focus of the immigration debate, illegal immigrants who have been in the United States since childhood hope for a way to become citizens

Issue: "Finding their way," Oct. 8, 2011

CHARLOTTE, N.C.-It's 3 a.m. and Carlos can't sleep. As he lies in bed by the window, every passing light, every noise jerks him awake. Rumors of police raids have been swirling in his Hispanic neighborhood. Although he recently turned 18, Carlos sees that as a bitter milestone: He could be deported now from the country where he has spent the last eight years.

Carlos' parents left Honduras for a better life when he was six years old: "We had one room for four people, one bed for four people. Our house was tiny, we were poor." Carlos and his siblings lived with his grandmother for the next four years, amid youth gangs and drugs, until his parents sent for him to cross Guatemala and Mexico into the United States at the age of 10.

The first time, Carlos traveled with his brother and uncle in trucks. As they approached the Guatemala-Mexican border, they realized the cops were after them. The men fled, leaving behind the children and women. Sent back to Honduras, he and his little brother soon headed north in a truck once again, stopping at Mexican houses with a handler guiding them. After three weeks they were reunited with their mother in Texas, and then moved to North Carolina.

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Eight years after his journey, Carlos says most of his friends don't even know he's living here illegally-most think he was born in the states. He graduated high school, and although three colleges offered partial soccer scholarships, he couldn't afford the out-of-state tuition. He now does manual labor at a greenhouse, working 15-hour days at minimum wage.

For many students like Carlos-WORLD agreed not to use his real name-life as an illegal immigrant is filled with fear and apprehension about the future. Without legal documentation and a social security number, he can't get a driver's license or open a bank account. He fears deportation to a country he barely remembers. In the United States, 1.7 million undocumented immigrants under age 18 face the same hurdles.

Under current immigration law, children whose parents brought them illegally to the United States have no way to stay in the country and become citizens. For the past five years, Congress has been considering the DREAM Act, which would create an avenue for undocumented students who graduated high school to became citizens by joining the Army or going to college. But the law has faced opposition from those concerned about the larger impact of illegal immigration.

The current law says that minors cannot be deported before turning 18. The rules are complex and meant to force young adults to return to their home countries when they turn 18. If they delay, stiff penalties kick in. An illegal 18-year-old has six months to return to his native country. From there he can apply for a U.S. visa. If he waits beyond the six months to go back to his native land, he can still apply for a visa-but he has to wait three years. If he waits until he's 19 to return to his native land, he can still apply for a visa-but he must wait 10 years.

Additional complications arise when returnees arrive in their native countries. They may face gang violence or harassment from authorities. They may not have relatives there and may not know the language and customs. If they plan to return to the United States, they face either a decades-long wait list or must settle for a student visa and pay tens of thousands of dollars for out-of-state tuition.

This would change with the DREAM Act. It would give illegal immigrants who came to the United States before the age of 16 temporary residence for six years, giving them time to complete either two years of college toward a four-year degree or two years in the military. After the six-year period, they would be eligible to apply for permanent residency, and after three more years, citizenship. Illegal immigrants under age 29 who have graduated from high school and lived in the United States for at least five years at the time the bill passes would be eligible.

Provisions of the DREAM Act attempt to guard against some standard concerns about allowing those who entered illegally to gain citizenship. Since the beneficiaries came here as children, proponents say it would not be helping those who knowingly broke the law. Since the DREAM Act would not allow those who gain citizenship through it to bring in relatives, it would not lead to "chain immigration," with a host of relatives coming.

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