By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"We decided to focus on naturalization. Naturally, the adjudication of the other [residency] cases was slipping," Schmidt says. "We knew that would happen. Once we get the citizenship wait to six months, we'll focus on getting the 33-month wait down."
For students graduating from high school without residency papers in hand, these massive delays can have disastrous effects. A petitioner can die, throwing the process in doubt. Immigrants are always at risk of deportation. It is also common for an immigrant to turn 21 while waiting for paperwork to be processed. When immigrants turn 21 they are immediately transferred to another State Department category and moved into a slower-moving line. This is called "aging out."
According to the June statistics from the State Department, a prospective immigrant who ages out would overnight face nearly three years' additional delay.
"An attorney once told me he did not get into immigration law because legal immigration was almost impossible," Donnelly says with a harsh laugh, before taking out the latest statistics from the Texas State Bar. Of more than 8,000 lawyers in Dallas, only 11 specialize in immigration law. "It is like walking on a minefield," she says.
Last Saturday, "Natalie" graduated from Rowlett High School. The 18-year-old has a high B average and dreams of law school, and her family is so proud that they paid for her grandfather to come from Guadalajara to attend the ceremony. She's the first in the family to receive a high school diploma from a U.S. school or any other.
Despite the ceremony and her strong GPA, her graduation was a joyless one. Natalie, who like Flor asked to remain anonymous, is an undocumented immigrant, and with no pending paperwork she sees little hope of continuing her education.
"I feel frustrated. I feel sad. You know when you're like inside a room and can't get out, and you want to open a door or window just to breathe? That's what I feel like," she says, in near perfect, crisply enunciated English. "It's not fair. We go through a lot, work hard, and try not to get into trouble. We go to school every day, then we get out and what? Go home and sit around?"
Natalie's father has a long history of working illegally in the United States, making continual trips across the border to work construction, wiring buildings for electricity. Tired of the separations, Natalie's mother and children relocated. Natalie was 7 years old when they moved.
"It was something heavy, something I never thought about," says Natalie's mother. "I never thought I'd move here. I was sad to leave my family in Mexico, but I was happy to have my husband, daughter, and son together as a family."
Natalie's mother encouraged her children to stay in school. The staff, supplies, and environment in U.S. schools were superior. She knew opportunities for bilingual employees were growing and envisioned a future in which her children would achieve economic independence.
The vision was so clear and bright that she missed the storm clouds. Natalie's mother says she gave no thought of how her daughter's immigration status might hamper her otherwise bright future until late in her daughter's sophomore year, when it came up during a conversation with friends that Natalie needed a Social Security number to apply to colleges and compete for scholarships.
"I never thought about it then, but I realize it now," the mother says ruefully. "I never thought they'd close the doors on students and stop them from getting an education."
Natalie's mother says she is both sad and angered by the rules. She sees bitter irony in those American students who drop out, throwing away the opportunity denied to her daughter. She also ponders some perceived mixed messages coming from the authorities.
"Here, if my child doesn't go to school, they send a letter and tell you to see a judge. Then they finish high school, and they shut the door," she says. "All of a sudden they stop caring?"
Two years of searching for a way around Natalie's immigration dilemma has yielded no answers. With no relatives here legally to petition for her, immigration attorneys have no good news to offer. "You talk to them, and they tell you, 'No,'" Natalie says.
Now, after three years of English classes and readjustment to the United States, she is mulling a return to Mexico to pursue a college degree. The family's tight economics make leaving a difficult choice.
"If I went back to Mexico, it would make things worse. My mother would have to send me money. She'd be paying for my school, and even more money for my personal things," Natalie says. "Since I haven't lived there for over 10 years, I just wouldn't be comfortable."
Natalie's younger brother and sister are enrolled in DISD, headed for the same dilemma confronting her. The family is facing the impending struggle with the same blind hope that brought them to U.S. soil and got Natalie through high school.
"I just tell them to keep going, keep going and don't give up," their mother says. "Something will happen, and you will get your papers. You will go to college."