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Undocumented Track Star Allowed To Stay, But In Legal Limbo

Evening Edition

A San Diego track star is one of thousands of undocumented immigrants to benefit from a new government policy that let’s them avoid deportation. But there’s a catch. From the KPBS Fronteras Desk, Jill Replogle reports. (Video by Katie Euphrat)


Aired 5/16/12

A San Diego track star is one of several thousand undocumented immigrants to benefit from a new government policy that lets them avoid deportation. But the reprieve leaves them in a kind of legal limbo.

Talking with 19-year-old Ayded Reyes, it’s hard to imagine a young woman more classically American. Her sentences are spiced with a healthy dose of that favored word, “like.”

But Reyes isn’t technically American and some things about her and her life aren’t at all normal.

She’s one of a few thousand undocumented immigrants to benefit from a new government policy that lets them avoid deportation. However, it leaves them in a kind of legal limbo.

The lanky, attractive Reyes is one of California’s top-ranked community college athletes. She’s captain of her track and field team at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, and a B+ student.

She recently won first place in the 3,000-meter steeplechase at the Southern California Community College Championships.

But last fall, she was just a split second away from being deported to Mexico.

Reyes and her boyfriend were sitting in his car at night at a park when a San Diego police officer shined a flashlight on them. He said it was past park curfew hours and asked them for identification.

Ayded Reyes and her boyfriend, Arturo Canela. A deportation case against Reye...
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Above: Ayded Reyes and her boyfriend, Arturo Canela. A deportation case against Reyes was administratively closed last Fall.

When Reyes offered up various school ID cards, the cop refused to accept them and pressed her for her social security number. She finally confessed she didn't have one.

Soon after, immigration authorities showed up and took Reyes away. Once in detention, she says immigration officers pressed her to sign a document consenting to immediate deportation. Reyes recounted the conversation.

“And I was like, ‘but I don’t want to be deported,’" she said. "And he’s like, ‘well, why don’t you want to go to your country?’ And I’m like, ‘because that’s not my country. I was raised here. I was born there but I don’t know a single city, I don’t know what’s over there.’”

The officer told her she’d likely get sent back anyway and suggested she just sign the paper, wait 10 years, and then come back.

“And that’s when I was like, ‘I don’t have 10 years. I have a race next week on Thursday,’” she said.

After several days in detention, Reyes was released in time to lead her cross-country team to a regional championship title.

Soon after, she won an even bigger victory: her deportation case was closed.

Reyes was allowed to stay here under a policy announced by the Obama administration last year dubbed “prosecutorial discretion.” It directs immigration officials to focus on prosecuting and deporting serious criminals and those who have repeatedly violated immigration law.

People like Reyes — who have strong ties to the community, or who have been living in the U.S. since they were young children — will have their deportation cases reviewed, and possibly closed.

Some analysts say the prosecutorial discretion policy is one of several ways the Obama administration is trying to work around Congress on thorny immigration issues.

“(They’ve) recognized that they’re not going to get comprehensive immigration reform passed by this Congress and probably not the next Congress,” said Wayne Cornelius, co-director of the Center of Expertise on Migration and Health at UC San Diego.

He also suspects Obama is pandering to both sides of the political equation in this election year.

“They're still promising to deport roughly 400,000 people a year. So how do you make that policy more politically palatable, particularly to Latino organizations, immigrants’ rights advocacy groups, to rank and file voters within the Democratic party base? You make it more palatable by focusing the attention of the system on criminal aliens,” Cornelius said.

Implementation of the policy has had a slow and somewhat rocky start. Of the some 300,000 undocumented immigrants with deportation cases pending, just a tiny fraction — 1.2 percent — has had their cases closed, according to data from U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.

That percentage could, however, grow, as many cases are still pending.

Some lawyers and observers note little consistency across the country in how the policy is being implemented. And some ICE agents have been resistant to training for the new system.

Undocumented immigrants who have had their cases dropped, like Reyes, are grateful. But their legal status doesn’t change.

Undocumented immigrant Ayded Reyes was accepted to UC San Diego after high sc...
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Above: Undocumented immigrant Ayded Reyes was accepted to UC San Diego after high school, but couldn't figure out how to pay for it. Now is weighing several options of full-ride scholarships to four-year schools.

A case closed under prosecutorial discretion does nothing to improve a beneficiary’s chances of getting a work permit, noted Jacob Sapochnick, a San Diego-based immigration attorney who represented Reyes after she was detained.

“Once they get the case closed temporarily, what will they do? They basically have nothing,” he said. “They fall in the same situation like they were before.”

So Reyes still can’t legally work. She can’t get a driver’s license. She can’t apply for federal loans for school.

All she has is a piece of paper from immigration authorities saying she’s already been through the system, and her case is temporarily closed.

She takes that paper with her everywhere.

“It makes me feel more safe,” Reyes said. “But not completely safe because I still don’t know what’s going to happen. Because what about later on? The laws change, or, you know, and that paper’s going to be nothing.”

For now, Reyes is concentrating on running. She’s competing for the state title in long distance this month. And she’s preparing for a future in this country.

She desperately wants to become a citizen but has few options for getting there. Her best chance might be a private bill introduced by San Diego Congressman Bob Filner, which would grant her permanent residence and put her on a path to citizenship. But such bills rarely get through Congress.

If Reyes somehow finds her way to a U.S. passport, her track coach, Tonie Campbell, who’s a former Olympian, thinks you might just see Reyes running in Rio in 2016 — in a red, white and blue uniform.

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Avatar for user 'HarryStreet'

HarryStreet | May 16, 2012 at 2:01 p.m. ― 4 years, 10 months ago

Just goes to show you when it comes to immigration we have good reasons to deal with the gray areas. Things aren't as black and white as some may think.

This doesn't mean we should ignore the fact we have an illegal immigration issue to deal with. People have been entering our country illegally for decades because 'this is the way it's always been,' as the saying goes.

I do believe it should be easier to obtain US citizenship. I experienced with family members the long process it took for them to get citizenship and know first-hand we have issues to fix.

I am, however, against amnesty, which is what many who want immigration reform demand. All one has to do is look at what's going in on Europe where hundreds of thousands of immigrants were permitted to enter countries and are having difficulty acclimating themselves to their new environment. This sort of thing takes time, no ifs ands or buts.

It also goes to show how we should address children born in the US of illegal parents. That law was put in place to answer the question of what our government should do with freed slaves after the civil war. Had our government known the far-reaching effects of their decision I have no doubt they would have reconsidered their interpretation of what constitutes a US born citizen.

But I'm human enough to hope that Aidad Reyes and many like her get their citizenship. I'm sure she will continue to make us proud. It would also be nice to see the same people fighting for immigration reform demand Third World countries improve their own livelihood so people aren't compelled to leave in search of a better life. After all, America is only so big.

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Avatar for user 'Peking_Duck_SD'

Peking_Duck_SD | May 16, 2012 at 4:24 p.m. ― 4 years, 10 months ago

David65, great well-articulated post - I have a few comments.

First, your comment about the current legal process being too cumbersome is right on. We would have a much more manageable situation on the border if our legal process were not some years-long bureaucratic nightmare.

As far as amnesty goes though, I disagree with you.

First off, what you describe in Europe is an on-going amnesty that includes people entering after the fact. I'm not in favor of that.

But I do support an amnesty for those here now as long as they have remained law-abiding while here.

My main reason is because amnesty or not, these people will remain here.

Race bating politicians like Jan Brewer and Willard Romney may claim they support mass deportations, but the fact is that even if we profile everyone and scrap social security and Meicare and use those trillions to round everyone up, we *STILL* wouldn't be able to deport all of the millions of illegal immigrants here.

It makes more sense to allow those peope to become "legitimate" so they can actually get work and contribute to our country legally.

If we have amnesty, it will also free up internal resources to be used at the border which is where immigration control should be taking place to begin with.

I don't support amnesty to be done in a vacuum, it **MUST** be done in conjunction with enhanced border security and amending the current legal process.

If you just give amnesty without the other reform, you end up with what Reagan did and with what you describe in Europe.

If you implement amnesty *with* the other reforms, immigration control becomes far more manageable and would collectively bennefit the situation.

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Avatar for user 'al_mac_62'

al_mac_62 | May 16, 2012 at 6:37 p.m. ― 4 years, 10 months ago

I think her mom and dad Can teach her all about her home country when they all go back there.

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