Thanks to a continuance granted in immigration court last month, Jefferson High School Valedictorian and St. Mary’s grad Benita Veliz will remain in the United States at least until her September 9 hearing. Twenty-three-year-old Veliz was 8 when her parents brought her to the United States from Mexico and subsequently overstayed their travel visa. She spent the next 15 years becoming a model student, but a routine traffic stop in Helotes in January upended her life and made her the national poster woman for immigration reform.
“Of course, the first thing that the police officer is going to ask you for is your license and insurance,” Veliz said. “I didn’t have my driver’s license, and I told him the truth — that I couldn’t get one because I was in the country illegally.”
The officer turned Veliz over to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, the traumatic culmination of a growing awareness that although she was playing by, and excelling under, the system’s rules, she didn’t have the same legal standing as her peers.
“It didn’t really dawn on me the implications of what it meant to be illegal until I was in high school and saw all of my friends going to get part-time jobs and their driver’s licenses ... and I realized that those were things I couldn’t do,” Veliz said.
After Veliz graduated at the top of her class at Jefferson, she studied biology and sociology on a full scholarship at St. Mary’s. Her dream, she says, is to attend law school.
“She has done everything that she can to be an upstanding citizen, and we won’t let her,” said Debbie Boggs, a Veliz family friend. “She has tried to give back to the community every way she can, and we just want an opportunity for her to be able to do that, to be able to work.”
Although Veliz has spent the majority of her life in Texas, she has no practical legal avenue to gain citizenship, and if she is deported, she would not be allowed back into the U.S. for at least 10 years.
Veliz is not alone. Some 2.1 million undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as minors have attended college or served in the military, yet don’t qualify for citizenship. No small part of the problem is that the laws that govern education reflect our most generous impulses, while our current immigration policy mirrors our (statistically unfounded) fears of job loss and crime. In 1982, the Supreme Court ruled that denying public education to undocumented immigrants violates the 14th amendment, and in 2001, Texas passed a law that allows undocumented immigrants to receive in-state tuition at state colleges and universities, provided they were enrolled in the Texas public-education system two years prior to their high-school graduation.
“The fact that there’s a law out there that allows somebody to go to college in the United States and allows them to graduate from San Antonio College or University of Texas or Texas A&M, that’s wonderful, but they cannot go to work after graduation, so we as a state are really losing them,” said Nancy Shivers, Veliz’s attorney. “There’s no law that allows them to go to work.”
To legally be employed in the United States, an immigrant must obtain a work visa, which typically requires the individual to apply from his or her home country and to have a standing job offer in the U.S. The government issues a limited number each fiscal year; in 2008, the feds stopped accepting applications due to the sheer volume of requests.
The more permanent form of the visa is the Green Card and there are four ways to obtain one: an employer petition, the green-card lottery program, a family petition, or marriage — all of which have their limitations, including in most cases a government quota that falls far short of demand.
Congressman Charlie Gonzalez has introduced legislation to intervene on Veliz’s behalf, but her last best chance to remain in the States is the DREAM Act, a bipartisan bill that would allow Veliz and her 2 million fellow legal orphans to gain conditional permanent residency that could lead to citizenship. In order to be eligible under the DREAM Act, children would have to have come to the United States before they were 16, resided here for at least the last five years, graduated from an American high school or obtained a GED, served in the military or attended college for two years, and have good moral character (which is not clearly defined in the act).
Veliz has been an outspoken advocate for the DREAM Act, attending a Washington, D.C. graduation demonstration with others in her position, and using every interview opportunity to tell the media that this issue is about more than one young woman. But the intense emotion and tears in the courtroom when the judge announced the three-month stay were a visceral reminder that this is also a deeply personal struggle to remain in the only home she knows.
“It’s not because I’m afraid that Mexico is a terrible, terrible place to be. It’s more that this is where my life is,” she said. “One can get a different job or a different place to live, but where are you going to replace your friends or family?