'If they make me go back, I will be lost'
From the outside, Ayded Reyes seems like she's living the American dream.
The 20-year-old, who attends Southwestern College in Chula Vista near San Diego, is California's top-ranked women's junior college cross country athlete. She carries a 3.50 GPA and her goal is to become an obstetrician. She is also a community volunteer who has worked extensively with children and the elderly. She is a young woman many describe as sweet, effusive and energetic, the "All-American" type.
There's just one catch: She's in the United States illegally.
Reyes' parents brought her to the United States from Mexico illegally when she was 2 years old. She has no memory of Mexico and has four younger siblings who were born here and are legal, but Reyes faces the very real possibility of being sent back.
In late October, a San Diego Harbor Police officer approached the window of Reyes' boyfriend's car, parked about a half-hour after closing time at a port park frequented by many locals, and asked the two for identification. Her boyfriend, an American citizen, showed his ID and was not questioned any further. But when Reyes showed her college ID, the officer asked if she had a state ID or a Social Security card. She said no.
The Harbor Police then followed what they said was standard procedure by running Reyes through a background check in a federal database because she didn't have legal ID. When the check revealed her illegal status, the police contacted border patrol and handed Reyes over.
During five days of incarceration, Reyes said she lost weight and was "scared to death." She said Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials pressured her to sign deportation papers, telling her it would be easier if she just agreed to be sent back to Mexico rather than fight to stay in the U.S., lose her case and become someone with a criminal record. But Reyes refused to sign.
"They kept calling Mexico 'your country.' They kept saying, 'You should go back to your country,' but it's not my country. I don't know anyone in Mexico, not a single person," Reyes said.
An ICE spokesperson said that ICE told Border Patrol to release Reyes, but would not comment any further on her ongoing case.
Just a few hours before she was to be shipped across the border, Reyes said she was given a reprieve when U.S. Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.) contacted ICE officials. The congressman, who was first contacted by Reyes' coach, Duro Agbede, subsequently introduced his private bill for Reyes, H.R. 3281, which, if passed, would grant her citizenship based upon special circumstances.
"I was very upset with the initial arrest; she never should have been referred to immigration," Filner said. "You don't have to carry ID in this country. Police can only refer someone to immigration if there is suspicion that a law has been broken. They were sitting in their car talking. This sounds like racial profiling. It should never have gotten this far. I'm going to do whatever I can to keep her here."
Ron Powell, a spokesman for the Port of San Diego, which includes the Harbor Police, refutes Filner's assessment of Reyes' being taken into custody.
"This young woman wasn't picked out; this was not selective treatment," Powell said. "If you or I were sitting in our car at the same time, police would do the same thing to identify you if you did not have valid ID."
Reyes' status in the States is dependent on an upcoming March 2012 hearing. At that time (or a later date, depending on how much Filner's bill delays proceedings), a judge will hear her case and make a decision. Reyes desperately searched for an attorney to represent her, but had little luck at first. She's a full-time student-athlete with very little money. Her parents, both undocumented workers who make minimum wage, help pay for her tuition.
Then Reyes found Jacob Sapochnick, a prominent immigration attorney in San Diego, who, after hearing her story, decided to take her case pro bono.
"Whoever stopped them from the Harbor Police went too far. There was no probable cause that there was any criminal activity," Sapochnick said. "There were no drugs or alcohol; there was no reason for them to verify her ID or for them to call the federal government."
Said Reyes on facing deportation: "If they make me go back, I will be lost."
Since her release, Reyes' days have been spent in a fight with the U.S. government, trying to show why she should stay in this country. Her situation is not uncommon.
"There are an estimated 2.1 million kids and young adults nationwide who are basically living the life Ayded Reyes is living, young people who are eligible for the federal DREAM Act," said David Shirk, an expert on U.S.-Mexico border issues and immigration and director of Trans-Border Institute, citing data from the Institute. "There are an especially substantial number of people who are going through this in California, but really it's happening across the nation."
The DREAM Act ("Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors") is a legislative proposal that has been introduced -- in different versions -- in 2001, 2009 and 2011 in the U.S. House and Senate. Its primary goal is to provide a way for those who came to the U.S. illegally as children to establish legal residency. They would have to be younger than 35, have gone to U.S. high schools and have displayed "good moral character." The Senate version of the bill (S. 952) had hearings in June 2011, but no other actions have been taken. The House version (H.R. 1842) was sent June to the Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement for further study.
Shirk continued: "So many people, like Miss Reyes, come here at a very young age and are then punished for it. It's not her fault she is here. This is really the only part of American law in which children are punished for the 'sins,' if you will, of their parents. I hear stories like this story every day. It is not unique other than her unique abilities as an athlete.
"There are many people I have known about who have excelled in school and in other areas of life who are living this sort of secret life, and many of them have been deported even though they came here as babies and even though they are doing great things here. There are so many people living the same life she is living, people who are contributing to society in so many ways, who are still sent back to Mexico or Central America. At the end of the day, she is at the mercy of immigration authorities."
Agbede, who calls Reyes an "unbelievably courageous young woman," is trying to help keep her in the U.S. Her teammates are also aware of her situation and supporting her fight.
Reyes, who takes a city bus to school every day, has been recruited by an Ivy League school and offered scholarships by more than a dozen top four-year universities, but that is now all in limbo because of her uncertain status.
"I'm getting calls right now from coaches all over the country, but we can't really respond or do anything," Agbede said. "This is the time when Ayded would be happily visiting schools and making her decision. But because of what has happened, she can't do anything at this point. It's heartbreaking."
Reyes has some help on her side, starting with Filner's bill. Private bills rarely get passed or even make their way out of committee, especially in the current divisive political climate, but introducing one should give Reyes some sanctuary and delay her deportation hearing, at least for a while. The bill has to go through the usual legal steps, including review by the House Judiciary Committee.
"This story cries out for humane treatment," Filner said. "She is the All-American girl. I don't feel as if she broke any laws. She came here, not of her own volition. She's been here 20 years, she's an exceptional young woman with no ties to Mexico, yet she was in jail for five days and was very, very close to being sent there.
"She has done everything right, her entire life. She does not deserve this treatment."
Reyes said her parents, to date, have not been approached by ICE officials regarding their immigration status. They had considered applying for U.S. citizenship in the past, but were held back by fears that revealing their illegal status would result in deportation. Reyes still would like to become a U.S. citizen someday, but will have to wait until her case is resolved with immigration.
"She should and could be allowed to stay here, but there's no way of knowing," Sapochnick said. "It will depend on the prosecutor and the judge. They're all different when it comes to these cases. She has many family members who are legal, and she's contributed so much to the community with her volunteer work, her scholarly record and her athletics.
"And she has a member of Congress in her corner. It should all work in her favor, but it remains to be seen. Unfortunately, there is no consistency with these prosecutions."
Indeed, in November, the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) and the American Immigration Council (AIC) released a new survey that found ICE and attorneys across the country are applying different enforcement standards despite the issuance of a national policy memo.
There are outlines for ICE agents and attorneys, detailing the factors that would make an immigration case a low priority. They include an immigrant having ties to America, including schooling and contributions to the community. The survey highlights the fact that while a few ICE offices have begun to implement the guidance, most have not, and many are actively resistant. Some officials said their jobs are simply "to arrest and deport."
Meanwhile, the waiting is causing Reyes a lot of stress.
"It's really nerve-racking," she said. "I don't even know how the system works in Mexico. I didn't even know that I was born there until I was in middle school. To me, well, I've always been a proud American."
Agbede said Reyes has been sad and confused about all that has happened, but still works very hard in sports and in school.
"She has tried not to let this get to her. But obviously her whole life is being challenged right now; she doesn't know if she has a future and it is very frightening," he said. " She has been a model citizen her entire life and she is one of the greatest athletes and people I've ever met. She is a joy to coach and an honor to know."
Reyes' release came just in time for her to run in the Pacific Coast Conference championship. Sitting in a cell for five days didn't stop her from winning the PCC individual championship in a wire-to-wire victory and leading her school to the team title.
However, adding injury to insult, in the California State Championship on Nov. 19 in Fresno, where everyone expected Reyes to dominate, she fell and was stampeded by other runners. But characteristically, she got up and, while still bleeding and in pain, passed more than 200 runners to finish fifth.
Reyes' cross country season is over, but she is looking forward to the start of track season Jan. 9 and her final semester at Southwestern.
She already has begun her training for track and is spending most of her time during the holiday break from school gathering the documents she needs for her immigration case, including letters from teachers and coaches vouching for her character, and proof of her academic and athletic accomplishments, awards and volunteer work.
Every little bit helps, her lawyer keeps telling her. But she knows the painful truth is that despite all her hard work, all her achievements and kindness to others, and all the support she is receiving, she could soon see her American dream trampled and find herself a stranger in a strange land.
"I kind of feel like a girl without a country," she said. "I've been an American my whole life, but now it seems like this country doesn't want me. I don't want to go to Mexico. I've worked hard in school and sports and I've helped people. My dream was to become a doctor. Now I don't know if that will happen. I don't know what my future is. I just have to keep studying, keep running and keep hoping."