Jennifer Abreu, 19 and a student at Bluegrass Community and Technical College, has a vested interest in what happens when the proposed DREAM Act comes up for a vote in Congress.
Abreu, who recently was arrested on immigration charges and held in the Boone County Detention Center for eight days, and others like her could get a reprieve if the act is approved. It would grant temporary resident status to some undocumented students brought to the United States when they were younger than 16. Votes in the Senate and House could come as early as Wednesday.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials arrested Abreu after she failed to show up for an immigration hearing. Abreu said she did not receive the notice because it was sent to a former address.
In 2004, Abreu's father brought her from Brazil to Lexington legally when she was 13, said her attorney, Dennis Clare of Louisville. When her father returned to Brazil in 2008, her visa was terminated, Abreu said. Immigration officials denied her application for a green card at the time, she said.
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"The whole immigration system is broken," said Abreu, who was released from detention Nov. 24 in anticipation of a hearing. "We are trying to make something out of ourselves in going to school."
The DREAM Act — the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act — would grant temporary resident status for 10 years to college students or military members who entered the United States before their 16th birthdays, have lived in the United States for five years, have graduated from high school and have good moral character. Those affected would be able to get student loans, obtain authorizations to work and get their driver's licenses.
During the 10-year temporary residency, applicants would have to complete two years of college or military service to apply for permanent residency.
Advocates express optimism about passage of the act in the House. However, political reports say its overall chances are not strong.
"DREAM Act cases illustrate the need for comprehensive immigration reform," ICE spokeswoman Gail Montenegro said. "... ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that focuses first on criminal aliens who pose a threat to our communities while we continue to work with Congress to enact reform."
Montenegro said the agency has the authority to grant a deferral for removals based on the merits of an individual's case and a review of specific facts.
Erin Howard, a leader of the Kentucky Dream Coalition, which is working for passage of the bill, says other young Central Kentucky students who came to the United States as children also have faced deportation.
For example, Julio Martinez, a 2009 graduate of Franklin County High School, was placed in a Wisconsin immigration detention facility and was to be deported to his native Honduras in March because his mother missed an immigration hearing a decade ago. Martinez was released in April pending an immigration hearing.
A lawyer for Martinez did not return phone calls. Martinez's current status is unclear.
Both Abreu, a graduate of Lafayette High School, and Martinez took classes at BCTC.
Abreu, who was also on the dance team at Lafayette, said she grew despondent in jail. "I didn't know how long I was going to have to stay," she said. "It was frustrating and depressing."
She was released the day before Thanksgiving from the Boone County Detention Center, where immigration detainees in Kentucky are held. Her case is being reopened, and she is waiting to be given another hearing date, she said.
"She is just like any other young person who is doing their best to make their future as bright as possible," said Howard. She said Abreu has worked as a mentor for other students.
Abreu said she fears she will fall behind academically because of the class time she lost while in jail. She wants to study journalism at the University of Kentucky, where she said she already is taking some courses.
"It's the laws we need to change," Abreu said. "I don't feel like I have done anything wrong to be put in a situation like this."
Abreu was among a group of students in Lexington who traveled in July to Washington, D.C., to ask Kentucky's congressional delegation to support the act.
On Tuesday, officials in the offices of Democratic Rep. Ben Chandler and Republican Sen. Jim Bunning did not immediately respond to e-mails asking for their positions on the bill.
Spokespersons for Republican Reps. Ed Whitfield and Geoff Davis and Sen. Mitch McConnell all said they oppose the act.
"Congressman Whitfield firmly believes that this country must enforce current immigration laws and also update them to address the ever-changing threats to our borders, security, and economy," spokesman Robert Sumner said.
Rep. John Yarmuth of Louisville, a Democrat, supports the bill.
"For those who are in this country through no fault of their own and want to contribute by serving the United States in the Armed Forces, the DREAM Act offers a path to a legal status," Yarmuth said in a statement.
"These hard-working people have obeyed our laws, learned our language, paid our taxes and — in many cases — are willing to sacrifice all for our nation," he said. "They deserve the opportunity to help strengthen our country without fear of reprisal."