by Leslie Layton
Dec. 1, 2011 update: Escobar said today that his case will be reviewed at some apparently undetermined time, and a Dec. 7 deadline for leaving the country has been lifted.
On May 19, 2009, Victor Escobar completed paperwork for graduation from Chico State and rented the gown that for many years he had dreamt of donning. Then he headed for his family’s home in Redding.
Escobar was a political science major who would graduate as a member of the student honor society. But he would never don the rented gown nor walk the stage with his class; his trip back to Redding would commence a two-and-a-half year ordeal that is now, for better or worse, on the brink of some kind of resolution, even if it’s perhaps tentative.
That May afternoon, Escobar found himself behind a slow-moving trailer-tanker on Highway 99, and chose to pass. As he crossed back over to his side of the highway, he crossed a double yellow line and was pulled over by an officer who had been headed the opposite direction.
For most drivers, a traffic citation would ruin their day. For undocumented immigrants, it’s the kind of dreaded event that can ruin a life. It landed Escobar, who had been brought to this country illegally when he was 13 years old, in ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) detention centers and changed the course of his life.
By Dec. 7, 24-year-old Escobar will know whether he must leave immediately or whether ICE has agreed to defer action on his case. Inadvertently, Escobar is testing a national shift in immigration policy that has taken form in the past few months. His effort to remain in the United States by winning deportation deferment has received support from former professors, a Southern California congresswoman and via an online petition that he says 1,200 people have signed on his behalf.
Escobar is a deeply religious, outgoing young man who dreamt of becoming an attorney. He now lives in Southern California and is working toward an MBA, the degree he says would serve him most if he returns to his native Peru.
Under the Obama Administration, immigration officials have deported a record number of undocumented residents, often splitting up families and deporting young people who were raised as Americans and barely know the countries they came from. As opposition to that policy has grown, officials have said they will do a better job of prioritizing deportation cases, concentrating their efforts on individuals who have criminal records.
But in November, two national organizations — the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the American Immigration Council — released survey results showing that the prioritization policy had been implemented inconsistently and often not at all. The Department of Homeland Security said last month that it would begin a review of 300,000 pending deportation cases and train agents in using “prosecutorial discretion” in pursuing enforcement action.
Escobar’s attorney, Vanessa Frank Garcia, says that makes sense because police officers and prosecutors use discretion all the time. Immigration officials “just don’t have the resources to go after all violations,” said Frank Garcia, who says Escobar has a strong case “if the [Obama] Administration and ICE are serious about exercising discretion.”
“He’s so articulate, so caring, so bright,” Frank Garcia said of her client. “He’s a great kid. He’s the kind of kid we want.”
After the 2009 traffic stop, Escobar said Tehama County turned him over to immigration agents who bused him to Bakersfield. It was strange, he said, to arrive in that town — where as a competitive swimmer he had known many other teens — handcuffed and shackled.” I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, here I am,'” he recalled. “I got good grades, I’m a good kid… I was really bummed out.”
From Bakersfield, he was taken to Arizona detention centers. He won release on a bond and hired attorneys who helped him delay deportation. But without any way of achieving legal status in the foreseeable future, Escobar began making plans to leave the country voluntarily. He was five hours away from leaving in August when he received what he believes were signs from God that it wasn’t the time to go.
One of the signs came in the form of a telephone call from an immigration rights activist who told him that under new Obama Administration deportation guidelines, Escobar could apply to become a low-priority case, effectively deferring action. “It was a total miracle,” Escobar said.
Until his Dec. 7 deadline, he can argue that prosecutorial discretion could be exercised in his favor. He has mounted an online campaign through the Website dreamactivist.org, posting videos in which he tells his story.
Frank Garcia argues that Escobar is a classic example of the kind of young person Dream Act legislation would help. That legislation, which would provide a path to citizenship for some young people who were raised in this country and perform military service or obtain a college degree, has thus far failed in Congress but will likely re-surface.
The deferment ICE could grant Escobar wouldn’t move him toward legal status, but depending on how it’s issued, might make a work permit possible.
Chico State Political Science Department Chair Charley Turner agrees the Dream Act was designed to help young people like Escobar. When Escobar was his student, it didn’t occur to Turner — and it probably didn’t occur to the other students — that he didn’t have citizenship or legal residency. Turner, who wrote a letter of support for Escobar, said Escobar was thoughtful and persuasive in class discussions and “considered himself a Californian like everyone else in the class.”
Students sometimes discuss Escobar’s case in the graduate government class Turner teachers now; some knew him as undergraduates. “Everyone recognizes we’ve got a problem,” Turner said of immigration policy. “The current rules aren’t particularly effective for dealing with the problem. We have people ending up in the United States, many of whom entered as minors… the Dream Act is an example of trying to come to terms with this.
“I don’t know if it’s a perfect law or not, but something along these lines is a step in the right direction.”
Escobar himself is a passionate Dream Act advocate. If he could stay in the United States, he’d like to attend law school and do missionary work. “The education system has invested so much in us,” Escobar said, adding that the Dream Act won’t grant citizenship readily to all the young people who might qualify. “There’s a pretty high level of scrutiny. You have to be in good moral standing. We’re kids who would actually help the community.”
Editor’s note: Escobar is hoping for a “termination of proceedings” ruling by ICE that would give him a chance at getting a work permit. In an e-mail to supporters, Escobar wrote: “We need to focus our efforts on sharing my story through the media and by demanding that our elected leaders take action to repair our broken immigration system, a system which is increasingly penal and does not meet the needs nor realities of our country.”