The Gomez brothers knew very little about their native country and spoke little Spanish.
As they awaited deportation in a Broward County immigrant detention facility, their classmates stormed social media. The campaign prompted Miami-Dade’s congressional delegation to stay the family’s deportation.
“There was an element of unfairness there,” recalled former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Miami, who helped the effort. “I’ve always believed you should be judged by your own decisions. His decisions were always to work hard and play by the rules, and make us all proud.”
Shortly thereafter, Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Connecticut, took the unusual step of introducing a “private bill” allowing Juan and Alex Gomez to remain in the country through 2009.
The boys had been given a critical first lifeline. But their parents had not.
Julio and Liliana Gomez boarded a plane for Bogota on October 30, 2007, unsure if they would ever see their sons again. The couple was prohibited from returning to the United States, and Juan and Alex Gomez could not travel outside the U.S. pending their immigration application.
On their own
Life became radically different once the teenage brothers were on their own.
Juan Gomez worked as many shifts as possible at the Outback Steakhouse to cover the rent, groceries and his tuition for the honors program at Miami Dade College. He and Alex shared a 1993 Nissan Sentra. When the car broke down, the brothers walked to school and their jobs.
“We were just scraping by,” Gomez said.
A year later, good news came from Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University was offering Gomez a scholarship covering almost all his tuition and living expenses.
His best friend’s mother drove him to campus and decorated his dorm room.
Before moving to Washington, Gomez had done some lobbying for the Dream Act. But living in the capital — and being part of the Georgetown community — gave him a new level of access to the political process. Gomez lobbied for the legislation in meetings with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and participated in roundtable discussions on immigration law.
Scott Fleming, the associate vice president for federal relations at Georgetown, said Gomez felt an obligation to take on the cause.
“He had the benefit of the private immigration legislation, which protected him and his brother from deportation while the Dream Act was pending,” Fleming said. “He saw that as an opportunity. He knew he could go out there and talk about the importance of this legislation without jeopardizing his education.”
All the while, Gomez maintained an A average. Georgetown eventually increased his scholarship to a full ride and offered him an additional living stipend.
For Gomez, Georgetown was an encouraging time. On an unusually cold day in January 2009, he and his friends stood on the National Mall to watch Obama’s first inauguration. Later, Gomez’s “private bill” was filed in Congress for a second time, allowing him to stay in the country through 2011.
Still, he felt the strain of his parents’ deportation.
“The hardest part about that time was not being able to help out my parents,” Gomez said. “I knew they were having a hard time finding work. I didn’t know how bad things were.”