The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
As Jessica Colotl sat in a classroom taking a final exam at Kennesaw State University Tuesday, federal immigration officials sent word she can remain in the country for another year.
Jessica Colotl in her attorney’s office Monday, May 2, 2011.
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Colotl, an illegal immigrant brought to this country as a child, was nearly deported to Mexico last spring following an arrest for a traffic violation on campus, but the federal government granted her a yearlong deferment so she could complete a degree in political science.
That reprieve was set to expire Thursday.
Colotl is among several illegal immigrant college students across the country who received temporary reprieves in recent weeks, according to published reports. Students living in Connecticut, Florida and Texas saw their deportations halted following a federal review of their cases. Federal immigration officials didn’t have statistics on how many deferments occurred recently and wouldn’t say if they are part of a conscious effort.
But the decisions follow a political push to suspend deportation of these students and pushback from some groups, who argue students like Colotl occupy space in America’s colleges that should go to legal citizens. .
On Monday, as Colotl prepared to take her final exams, she said she considers herself an American.
“I think I deserve the right to be recognized as an American on paper because I believe in the American system and I believe in American values,” Colotl said. “I am no different than any other American.”
On Friday President Obama renewed his support for the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants like Colotl brought to this country as children. They would have to meet several criteria, including completing at least two years of college.
The bill has been introduced in multiple forms over the past decade, but has yet to pass. While it has bi-partisan support, some Republicans blocked it last year.
Supporters say these children have the potential to contribute to this country and should not be punished for their parents’ mistakes. Critics say the bill provides amnesty to those who broke the law and that it could increase illegal immigration.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said last month deporting illegal immigrant students is not a high priority for the agency responsible for protecting the nation’s borders.
Meanwhile states, including Georgia, are passing their own laws. Georgia lawmakers debated a bill to ban illegal immigrants from all public colleges but it did not pass.
That bill will be re-introduced, said Sen. Don Balfour, R-Snellville. He doubted the DREAM Act would become a reality.
“The DREAM is literally a dream and it’s time for the federal government to follow the law,” Balfour said. “I’m happy she’s finally filing paperwork and following legal channels now, but let’s not forget that the law is the law.”
The deferment means Colotl can walk at graduation May 11. She picked up her cap and gown, but hasn’t allowed herself to try it on yet.
She wants to remain in Georgia permanently. She plans to work at a law firm next year and then go to law school. Her deferment, which came as a surprise to her attorney Charles Kuck, included a provision that allows her to work, he said. She wants to be an immigration attorney.
Colotl scheduled three finals Tuesday afternoon and could not be reached for comment. She rushed to finish her exams before Thursday, the day her deferment was originally set to expire.
Colotl was 11 when her parents brought her here. Over the past year, the 22-year-old has been in and out of courtrooms and spent 37 days in a detention center.
“It’s been a a nightmare and I can’t wait until it’s over,” she said. “I’m a firm believer everything happens for a reason so I’m stuck in this situation and at the end of the day I’m going to see why it really happened to me.”
Georgia has long debated illegal immigration and higher education, but Colotl’s arrest re-ignited the issue.
There was public outcry that KSU President Daniel Papp spoke to federal officials on her behalf and that the college wrongly charged her in-state tuition. At that time, illegal immigrants were allowed to attend public colleges but were required to pay the higher out-of-state tuition rates.
The regents have since tweaked the policy and illegal immigrants can’t attend any college that turns away academically qualified students. This applies to: University of Georgia, Georgia State University, Georgia Tech, Georgia Health Sciences University and Georgia College & State University. Illegal immigrants may attend other colleges, including KSU, provided they pay out-of-state tuition.
Colotl’s legal troubles aren’t over. Kuck said they will need to request another extension next year and was unsure if she would receive a third one.
“If I’m denied the opportunity to remain in the United States I will still have my education,” Colotl said. “No one will be able to take it away from me because that is something I earned myself.”