Just a year ago, Killian High star grad Juan Gomez barely avoided a forcible return to his native Colombia, a country he scarcely knows, when classmates, civic leaders and members of Congress rallied to help him stave off deportation.
Now he's off -- not to South America, but north to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., alma mater of Bill Clinton, where he has been admitted as an international student on scholarship.
Shortly after stepping off an early flight from Miami on Thursday, Gomez, 19, found himself engaged in an all-American activity -- shopping at a Target to outfit the dorm room he will share with a student from California.
"It's been really exciting, " Gomez said before leaving Miami.
For Gomez, the one off-note was the absence of his parents, who were deported to Colombia in October.
"They were a little sad that they won't be able to go up with me, " Gomez said.
Julio and Liliana Gomez brought Juan and his older brother, Alex, to the United States in 1990 with tourist visas in a fruitless bid for political asylum, but the family stayed in the country for more than a decade despite a deportation order.
When immigration authorities detained the family last year, Juan and Alex became causes celebres, symbolizing the plight of tens of thousands of young immigrants who are in legal jeopardy because they were brought to the country as children by their parents without authorization.
A widely publicized grass-roots campaign led by the teens' friends led to two principal efforts, including a bid to pass the so-called DREAM Act, which would allow young immigrants in their situation to stay by going to college or serving in the military. That effort stalled amid last year's acrimonious debates over immigration.
Then came private bills filed by U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart and Sen. Christopher Dodd that, if passed, would allow the brothers to stay permanently. Immigration officials granted the young men a stay of deportation until Congress takes up the bills sometime early next year. U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen also has backed efforts to let the brothers stay.
Opponents of the DREAM Act have said Congress should not reward immigrants who flout the law regardless of their youth or talents.
"We can't solve the problem by encouraging more people to come here, " said Mike Cutler, a former immigration agent and fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, a group that advocates cuts in legal and illegal immigration.
"Do I feel bad for this kid? Yes. But it comes back to parental responsibility. Bringing a child unlawfully into this country with all of that uncertainty jeopardizes the well-being of that child."
Supporters say it's foolish to cast away bright, able young people whose education represents substantial public investment.
"To deport them or waste their talents is a terrible brain drain for our country as well as a loss of the tax dollars already invested in their education, " said Cheryl Little, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center, which represents the Gomez brothers.
After their parents and grandmother were deported, Juan and Alex continued to live in the family's Kendall home. Juan took a job at a local Outback Steakhouse to save money for college. Alex, 20, has also been working at a restaurant and will attend Miami Dade College. He hopes to be a firefighter, his brother said.
Juan spent a year studying in Miami-Dade's Honors College.
"It was a great year, " he said. "I made some good friends. But in the middle of the year, I decided I was going to apply to schools again."
The acceptance to Georgetown as a transfer student came with a $42,000 competitive scholarship, not quite enough to cover tuition and expenses for a year. Juan will be a sophomore and take courses in business and finance, preparation for a career in investment banking or law.
He was accompanied to Washington by Bette Ellen Quiat, the mother of buddy Scott Elfenbein, now at Harvard, who helped organize the campaign for the Gomez brothers.
Quiat was helping Juan pick out cool-weather clothes and dorm furnishings as he spoke on a cellphone.
"I'm pretty clueless when it comes to this stuff, " Juan joked. "I'm really appreciating this help."
Otherwise, the unflappable young man said he was not in the least cowed by the new challenge he's taken on.
"Honestly, I'm not nervous at all, " he said.
Nor has he given up on staying for good. He said he will continue to hope for passage of the private bills and push for the DREAM Act.
"I wouldn't have applied [to Georgetown] if I really thought I'd be leaving in a year, " he said. "I feel like my best chances of staying in this country are going to a prestigious institution like Georgetown."