By JULIA PRESTON
April 26, 2011
Olga Zanella, a Mexican-born college student in Texas, should have started months ago trying to figure out how she could make a life in Mexico, since American immigration authorities were working resolutely to deport her there.
But Ms. Zanella, 20, could not bring herself to make plans. She was paralyzed by fear of a violent country she could not remember, where she had no close family.
Ms. Zanella, who has been living illegally in the United States since her parents brought her here when she was 5, had been trying to fight her deportation for more than two years. She was pulled over by the local police in February 2009 as she was driving in her hometown, Irving, Tex., and did not have a driver’s license. The police handed her over to immigration agents.
Her case looked bleak, but in recent days everything changed. Last Thursday, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official in Dallas summoned Ms. Zanella and told her she could remain in this country, under the agency’s supervision, if she stayed in school and out of trouble.
Encouraged by the surprising turnaround, Ms. Zanella’s parents and two siblings, who also had been living in the United States illegally, presented papers late Monday to ICE, as the agency is known, turning themselves in and requesting some form of legal immigration status.
“It’s an opportunity we are going to take,” Ms. Zanella said in a telephone interview from Dallas. “It’s better than being in the shadows.”
The about-face by ICE in Ms. Zanella’s case is an example of the kind of action Democratic lawmakers and Latino and immigrant groups have been demanding from the Obama administration to slow deportations of illegal immigrants who have not been convicted of crimes. In particular, pressure is increasing on President Obama to offer protection from deportation to illegal immigrant college students who might have been eligible for legal status under a bill in Congress known as the Dream Act.
In an April 13 letter, the top two Democrats in the Senate, Harry Reid of Nevada and Richard Durbin of Illinois, asked the president to suspend deportations for those students. But short of that, the senators asked Mr. Obama to set guidelines by which those students could come forward individually to ask to be spared deportation and to obtain some authorization to remain in the United States. The letter was signed by 20 other Senate Democrats. The Dream Act passed the House but failed in the Senate in December.
Homeland Security officials have said their focus is increasingly on removing immigrants who are convicted criminals. That, in fact, is what an ICE official told Ms. Zanella in explaining the new decision in her case.
The agent said ICE “was supposed to be concentrating on criminals, not on Dream students,” said Ralph Isenberg, a Dallas businessman who advocates for immigrants and made it his cause to prevent Ms. Zanella from being deported. Mr. Isenberg’s challenges to ICE had kept Ms. Zanella in the country even after the final date for her deportation in February.
“As long as I do well in school and stay out of trouble, I will be out of trouble with ICE,” Ms. Zanella said she was told. She has to report to ICE every month.
ICE officials declined to comment on the case, citing privacy policies.
ICE officials in central Florida recently invited immigration lawyers to bring forward illegal immigrants facing deportation who did not have criminal records, offering provisional authorization for them to remain here and work legally.
On Tuesday, immigration authorities suspended the deportation of Mariano Cardoso, 23, a Mexican student at Capital Community College in Connecticut, according to Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat, who had pressed Mr. Cardoso’s cause. ICE’s decision ended a two-year battle against deportation for Mr. Cardoso.
But nationwide the administration’s deportations policy remains confused and erratically implemented, immigration lawyers said, with many students and immigrants without criminal records being deported.
“The administration needs to make it clear to the public and to the rank and file within ICE that it has a firm and clear policy of enforcing the law within its priorities and discouraging going after cases that are not within its priorities,” said Gregory Chen, director of advocacy for the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “But that is just not happening consistently.”
Ms. Zanella is studying at North Lake College in Irving to become a dentist. The police in Irving never explained why they stopped her and never issued any traffic ticket, Mr. Isenberg said.
ICE agents made no promises to Ms. Zanella’s family. Her father, José Victor Zanella, said: “We are ready to trust in the system.”