When Rigoberto Padilla arrived to the United States at the age of six from Mexico, he was a stranger to Chicago. Now, 15 years later and dubbed an "illegal alien," he is undergoing deportation proceedings - and Chicago has rallied around him.
Advocates say the campaign to stop Padilla's deportation is about more than just this one case. They hope the pressure applied through community activism and the Chicago City Council Human Rights Committee's plan to debate a resolution about the deportation of Padilla and other Chicago-based undocumented students like him in November 2009 will bring attention to what they consider a broken immigration system.
"There is an identity crisis for undocumented students," Padilla said in a phone interview. "There is no going back to Mexico for me because all that I have is here, but there is no moving on here in this country without the legal recognition that I am American."
The battle to pass legislation offering a path to legalization for the more than 65,000 undocumented students graduating from high school in America each year continues, while The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act, sponsored by Sen. Richard Durban (D-Illinois) and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Indiana) in 2001, is still stalled.
The DREAM Act calls for the creation of a path to legalization for students brought to America as minors. In its most recent incarnation, the bill called for temporary, legal residence to be offered to those students who had graduated from high school in America, lived in the US for at least five consecutive years, were of "good moral character" and were enrolled in college or planned to serve in the military.
Though Senator Durbin has said he will continue to push for the DREAM act as long as he "draws breath," he does not expect to see immigration reform on the table until the health care debate is resolved. Though the House has never voted on the DREAM Act as a stand-alone bill, and in 2007 it was eight votes short of overcoming a Republican filibuster, Durbin reintroduced it to both houses in March 2009, and, thus far, 101 representatives and 31 senators have co-sponsored the bill.
Undocumented students, as well as having limited job prospects, are not eligible for financial aid or credit, and those like Padilla who choose to pursue higher education do so out of pocket. The Immigration Policy Center estimates that only five to ten percent of undocumented students that graduate from high school attend university, compared to 67 percent for American citizens who enroll in university after graduation.
"I feel like we are doing what they say we should," Padilla said of his decision to attend college despite having to work two jobs to support himself, "but the legal government doesn't put up their end ... there's this huge amount of waste of talent."
Padilla, an honor student who led the Organization of Latin American Students at Harold Washington College and is now studying at the University of Illinois in Chicago, was picked up on a traffic violation on January 18, 2009. It was then ascertained that he was not a citizen, and while in Cook County Jail, he was interviewed by an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent, and shortly after transferred to a federal prison. There he was given the option to pay bond or wear an ankle bracelet to track his movements. He left with a misdemeanor drunk-driving conviction, an ankle bracelet and a court date.
Chicago's status as a "sanctuary city," passed as an executive order in 1985 by then-Mayor Harold Washington, prohibits city employees from enforcing immigration law. Padilla and city advocates have argued that his experience shows a violation of this ordinance.
Padilla has found wide support for his fight against the deportation order in this city he considers home. US Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Illinois), state Reps. Lisa Hernandez (D) and Gregory Harris (D), along with a number of Chicago aldermen, have expressed their support for an end to deportations in conjunction with Padilla's case.
The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights said "the removal of Rigoberto Padilla is a tragedy for him, his family, and our entire community." ICIRR's Executive Director Joshua Hoyt, was with Padilla when he marched with around two dozen people to the Chicago offices of the Department of Homeland Security, calling for immigration reform this August. With them, the marchers had more than 9,000 petitions in a box with a photo of 6-year-old Padilla taped to the front.
"The Obama Administration recognizes that our immigration system is broken, yet it continues its absurd path of enforcing our current laws even more vigorously, a path that will only ruin more lives like Rigo's and tear apart more families," said Hoyt. "Our nation needs workable solutions that uphold our nation's values and move us forward together."
Padilla is now counting down the days until his scheduled deportation - December 16 he will be on a flight to Mexico, a place he has not been since the age of six. In an open letter to Senator Durbin, Padilla, who hopes to become an immigration attorney, wrote: "I consider myself American. I have been in this country for 15 years and have struggled to continue my education with what little I have. I feel that I am not alone in this struggle."