If the Dream Act ever had a public face, it belonged to Juan Gomez.
Weeks after his 2007 graduation from Killian Senior High, the undocumented teen was rounded up by immigration officials and nearly deported to his native Colombia. His classmates launched a social media campaign to keep him in the country — and lawmakers took unprecedented steps to make it happen.
Gomez later won a full scholarship to Georgetown University and landed a top-paid job with JPMorgan Chase in New York City. He told his story on Capitol Hill to advocate for the Dream Act, a proposed bill that would provide undocumented young adults with a pathway to citizenship.
But Gomez’s own pathway came to an abrupt end last month, after his temporary work permit expired and the application he filed for a new one got tied up in a deluge of similar requests from other young immigrants.
Unemployed and needing to support his parents, the 24-year old had little choice but to leave the United States. Today, he’s working for an investment firm in São Paulo, Brazil, with little chance of ever returning to the United States.
For Gomez, the American dream got derailed.
Ironically, Gomez encountered the roadblock after President Barack Obama granted temporary deportation relief and work permits to undocumented young adults who arrived as children.
More than 430,000 applications have been approved since the program, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, launched in 2012. But an untold number of others, including the one filed by Gomez, are mired in a backlog.
“There are some eligible young adults who have been waiting nine, ten months,” said Roberto Gonzales, a Harvard University sociologist who is studying the new policy. “The wait is crippling for a lot of them.”
Cheryl Little, executive director of Americans for Immigrant Justice and Gomez’s attorney in Miami, said the delays underscore the need for broad immigration reform.
“Until Congress approves desperately needed immigration reforms, many young folks will not be able to achieve their full potential,” Little said. “Some will be deported. Others, like Juan, will leave for countries that embrace them. The result is a colossal brain drain for the United States.”
Juan Gomez’s winding odyssey through the U.S. immigration system began in 1990, when his family arrived in New York City on a six-month tourist visa. Gomez was two years old. His brother Alex was three years old.
The boys’ father, Julio, applied for political asylum, saying he had been the target of violence in Colombia and that his brother had been killed by guerrilla fighters. But an immigration judge denied the request. The Board of Immigration appeals upheld the ruling in 2002 and ordered the family to leave the country.
The family ignored the order.
By that time, the family had settled in South Florida. Julio Gomez and his wife, Liliana, had a small catering business specializing in party rentals.
Alex Gomez played football and was well liked by his peers. Mild-mannered Juan Gomez excelled in academics. He took 15 Advanced Placement courses at Killian Senior High, and graduated in the top 20 of his 780-member class.
Gomez knew that he and his family members were undocumented. It was the reason he didn’t apply to the University of Pennsylvania, his top choice for college. Still, he was shocked when immigration officers showed up at his house before dawn on July 25, 2007, to deport the entire family to Colombia.