Brothers Juan and Alex Gomez bid wrenching goodbyes to their parents and grandmother Tuesday afternoon at Miami International Airport as the three were deported to their native Colombia.
The family was ordered deported in July, but a passionate lobbying campaign by Juan's high school classmates garnered the backing of several South Florida lawmakers, who helped him and his brother get a temporary stay of deportation.
For the brothers' parents, Julio and Liliana, and 85-year-old grandmother Carmen, time ran out Tuesday.
"I'm feeling such a tremendous pain, because I don't know what's going to happen to us, " said Liliana Gomez, 43, as she wept in the check-in line. "I don't know when I'm going to see my sons again."
Juan, 18, and Alex, 19, were granted an additional reprieve. Rep. Lincoln Díaz-Balart, R-Miami, filed a private bill in Congress that, if passed, would allow the brothers to remain in the United States. They may be allowed to stay until the bill is taken up by Congress, sometime by early 2009.
Juan -- an outgoing and popular Killian High School honors graduate now attending Miami Dade College Honors College -- was all but mute at the airport, with only a "no comment" for the crush of reporters. He offered a few tearful words for his family.
"I love you, " he said to his father in English as his parents headed to the airport security line.
The family came to South Florida on a six-month tourist visa in 1991, when the brothers were toddlers. They stayed and built a small catering company. They eventually filed an asylum petition that was denied more than a decade later, leading to their deportation order in 2003.
After they were detained by immigration officials on July 25, their lawyers filed a motion to reopen their asylum case, saying that several family members had been killed in Colombia's civil war since they were ordered deported. The effort failed.
With their parents gone, Juan and Alex, also a student at MDC, are looking for work to support themselves while they continue going to school, said their lawyer Cheryl Little, of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center.
"This is literally tearing a family apart, " Little said. "It's so un-American."
Those who favor stopping illegal immigration disagree.
"If the parents think it's important they should have children with them, their kids should go home with them, " said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank. "Illegal immigrants are moral actors. They're grown-ups, and we're treating them like they're children in this debate. It's not like they didn't decide to come here."
The family will go first to Bogotá, then to their native town of Pereira in western Colombia.
"I have so much pain but also much hope, " said Julio Gomez, 51. "Our sons will keep fighting, not just for them but for the thousands of kids who have the same problem."
A few hours after the family said goodbye, dozens of the brothers' classmates at Miami Dade College's downtown campus held a rally to protest the recent failure of the DREAM Act, a bill aimed at allowing undocumented students such as the Gomezes the opportunity to apply for citizenship after two years of college or military service.
The legislation died last week after the Senate refused to take it up for debate.
"The DREAM Act is important because thousands of children who have lived here most of their lives are being deported, and families like Juan Gomez's are being destroyed, " said Felipe Matos, president of MDC's Wolfson Campus Student Government Association. "We're not going to give up."