An impromptu class where Mark Farrales taught other immigrant detainees English vocabulary brought him a sliver of normalcy while lost in legal limbo.
Nouns and verbs helped Farrales avoid thinking about his pending deportation to the Philippines as he waited for five weeks behind high fences.
“I didn’t know what I would do if I was sent back to the Philippines. … I don’t have any relatives there to speak of, I don’t have any property or a job. I wouldn’t know how to begin living there,” said Farrales, a Harvard University graduate and now a doctoral student at the University of California San Diego. “We came here when I was 10. I only remember bits and pieces of that time.”
Immigration and Customs Enforcement took Farrales into custody from his home in Reseda on Nov. 17, based on a deportation order from 1998. His family’s application for asylum had been denied years ago. He said he didn’t know about the order.
Almost as soon as he was detained, relatives, friends and university professors from across the country rallied on his behalf with petitions, calls and letter to members of Congress. Those efforts led to a one-year Deferred Action approved by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, at the request of Rep. Brad Sherman, D–San Fernando.
“I was surprised, pleasantly surprised, and very shocked and amazed at what happened,” Farrales said. “This is my home. I just want to be able to stay home.”
The deferral marks Farrales as one in a handful of illegal immigrant college students who have been given reprieve in a similar manner — through a Stay of Removal order or a private bill in Congress. These postponements are a source of divisiveness, specifically for people who argue against any considerations for illegal immigrants.
High-profile cases of deferred deportations include Harvard student Eric Balderas of San Antonio; Shing Ma (Steve) Li, a student at City College of San Francisco; and University of Detroit Mercy student Herta Llusho.
The number of student deferral cases has not increased overall, according to immigration experts. Instead, the heightened attention to this issue stems from the DREAM Act.
That legislation passed in the House of Representatives but fell short in the Senate last month. It would have given illegal immigrants under 30 who arrived in the United States before age 16 and then graduated from high school the chance for permanent residency if they attend college or join the military.
Supporters of the DREAM Act view case-by-case delays as the only alternative for students facing deportation, but also view the method as inadequate, said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration reform group based in Washington, D.C.
He worries about the dozens of undocumented students he believes are being deported without fanfare.
“It’s outrageous that there have to be massive community campaigns to stop the U.S. government from sending kids who are Americans back to countries they don’t know,” Sharry said. “In the absence of Congress doing what’s right, it’s left to communities, with the aid of a brave congressman or congresswoman, to help students one by one.”
Both sides of the debate blame each other for allegedly distorting the consequences of allowing undocumented students to stay in the United States.
Law enforcement, jobs and resources are top concerns for people who regard deferral orders as special treatment.
“We should enforce our immigration laws across the board regardless,” said Yeh Ling-Ling, executive director of the Alliance for a Sustainable USA, a Bay Area group advocating tighter immigration and population control. “The Obama administration is trying to use different ways to grant amnesty to those who are here illegally.”
Last year, a leaked internal document from the Department of Homeland Security showed plans to overlook students in enforcement efforts by authorizing deferrals. The agency’s officials have said it was a memo, not a policy document.
Deferred Action and Stay of Removal are given by the Department of Homeland Security’s agencies, usually by field-office or district directors who review cases. The postponements award no legal status to the individual except the ability to apply for authorization to work, said Lauren Mack, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement in San Diego.
Medical factors, educational history and families with U.S.-born children are the top reasons for granting postponements.
The deportation order for Farrales had been issued while he was at Harvard. He went on to get his master’s degree at UCSD before starting the Ph.D. program. His dissertation is on the corruption of governments.
“Mark is an upstanding person and extraordinary scholar, and this is the kind of person we should be trying to permit under any circumstance to stay in the U.S,” said David Lake, a social science professor and one of Farrales’ dissertation advisers.
Lake hopes his student will be able to remain in this country, calling it a tragedy for Farrales and a waste of taxpayer money to send him away.
Farrales’ last day at his family’s home in the Philippines was the day his father was shot twice in the head. A prominent lawyer, the older Farrales had spoken out against government corruption. He survived the attack and the household immediately went into hiding before migrating to Los Angeles, the younger Farrales said.
Farrales went on to graduate as valedictorian of his high school class. His legal status was a work in progress, he thought.
“When my father was alive, none of that was of great concern to me,” Farrales said. “I was working, paying taxes, so I didn’t think about it.”
While Farrales awaits the outcome of his immigration appeal, he is intent on completing his dissertation so he can teach. He said the makeshift class at the detention center and the public outpouring of support for him have confirmed his career goal.
“I wanted to give back before,” he said. “Now, having gone through this basically heightens that feeling, that sense.”
It’s unclear how many illegal immigrant students facing deportation from the U.S. have received a deferral. Here are some high-profile cases from the past two years:
•Mohammad Abdollahi, 24, of Ann Arbor, Mich. Came from Iran and attended Washtenaw Community College. One-year deferral.
•Jennifer Abreu, 19, of Lexington, Ken. Came from Brazil and now attends Blue Grass Community College. Stay of Removal.
•Eric Balderas, 19, of San Antonio. Came from Mexico and now attends Harvard University. One-year deferral.
•Jessica Colotl, 21, of Atlanta. Came from Mexico and now attends Kennesaw State University. One-year deferral.
•Mark Farrales, 31, of Los Angeles. Came from the Philippines and now attends the University of California San Diego. One-year deferral.
•Shing Ma (Steve) Li, 20, of San Francisco. Came from Peru and now attends City College of San Francisco. Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced a private bill for Li, which allows him to stay in the U.S. until the legislation is resolved.
•Herta Llusho, 19, of Detroit. Came from Albania and now attends the University of Detroit Mercy. One-year deferral.
•Ivan Nikolov, 22, of Harper Woods, Mich. Came from Russia and now attends Macomb Community College. One-year deferral.
•Rigoberto Padilla, 22, of Chicago. Came from Mexico and now attends the University of Illinois, Chicago. One-year deferral that has been extended.
•Bernard Pastor, 18, of Reading, Ohio. Came from Guatemala. (Not in college yet.) One-year deferral.