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.
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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.
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.”
He would later learn his parents went three years without water or electricity.
Gomez dove into his businesses classes in hopes of landing a job on Wall Street.
It didn’t take long. The summer before his senior year, he won a competitive summer internship with JPMorgan Chase in New York City. He received a stipend of about $10,000.
“It was a lot more money than I had ever earned,” he said. “Obviously, with that I was able to send a good portion to my parents.”
At the end of the summer, Gomez was offered a full-time job with the company upon graduation. He returned to Georgetown to finish his senior year with a newfound sense of relief and optimism of the future.
“The weight was completely off my shoulders,” he said.
Gomez graduated magna cum laude and then relocated permanently to New York City. He won’t say what his salary was, but it was enough to rent a Manhattan apartment and send money to his parents in Colombia. He was also able to buy a new Honda Civic for his brother Alex, as well as pay Alex’s tuition bill at Miami Dade College.
With his job requiring long hours — often from 9 a.m. to 3 a.m. — Gomez cut back on his lobbying efforts.
Meanwhile, the proposed Dream Act continued to stall in Congress. But as the 2012 presidential election neared, Obama offered up a surprise change in U.S. immigration policy.
Through his own power as president, Obama ordered the creation of a program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). It was not the permanent immigration reform Gomez had hoped for, but it would enable him to continue living and working in the United States for another two years.
Gomez filed his DACA application at the end of January.
His attorney said she was advised it would take three months to process because Gomez already had a work permit. But three months came and went.
In May, Gomez’s existing work permit expired. He was put on unpaid leave at JPMorgan Chase.
Weeks , then months, passed without a paycheck. Gomez continued sending money to his parents in Colombia and his brother in Miami.
“I was bleeding money, and I had no idea when I would be able to work again,” he said.
When a recruiter from a Brazilian investment firm called, Gomez listened to the pitch. He accepted the offer in late July, and packed his belongings in August.
“My priority is to support my parents,” he said. “I can’t have anything standing in the way, even the U.S. government.”
When contacted by the Miami Herald about Gomez’s application, Ana Santiago, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) said she could not comment on individual cases. She said DACA applications are currently taking six months to process.
Patrick Taurel, of the American Immigration Council, a pro-immigration group in Washington, said he has heard of some cases pending for nine months.
“But by and large, the agency deserves credits for the speed at which they rolled out this program,” he said.
Immigration hardliners say it ought to take longer.
“If anything, these applications are being processed too quickly with too little scrutiny,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “Very few people are even interviewed. It’s all done through the mail.”
Krikorian said an application would be held up for nine months only “if there had been a red flag.”
But Gomez’s attorney is still puzzled.
“There was no reason to believe he wasn’t going to get approval in a timely, reasonable manner,” Little said. “He was clearly eligible. He paid his fees, all the documentation was submitted, and there was still no answer.”
For Gomez, the pay in São Paulo is comparable to what it was in New York. But life in Brazil’s largest city has been lonely. Gomez doesn’t speak Portuguese. He misses the conveniences of Miami and New York City, and being able to watch the Green Bay Packers and New York Yankees on TV.
He tries not to think about the United States, the country he calls home. Even visiting would be a challenge. Non-citizens who overstay their visas can be barred from returning for a decade.
Still, Gomez doesn’t regret the decision to leave.
“If I didn’t make this move, I’d still be in New York not working,” he said. “I had no path in the United States.”
If there is a silver lining, it came last week in the form of a visit from his parents. It was the first time he had seen them since 2007.
The family spent Sunday afternoon in a public park, wandering the grounds and making up for lost time.
Gomez called it his happiest day in more than six years.