His younger brother is an American citizen. His parents were illegal immigrants, deported to Bangladesh and India. For two years, Yves Gomes, who spent all but 14 months of his 17 years in Silver Spring, lived in limbo, wondering in which direction his path lay.
On Monday, it looked like Kolkata.
Late Tuesday, he began to think it might be College Park.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement granted him a rare last-minute reprieve. His deportation to India, scheduled for Friday, was put on hold. He could pursue his stalled application to the University of Maryland.
The case, which has been used by immigrant advocates to publicize the parts of the deportation system they consider most unfair, comes amid a heated national debate about illegal immigration and controversy over how decisions are made over whom to deport.
But for Gomes, who took five Advanced Placement classes in his senior year at Paint Branch High School before graduating in June with a 3.8 grade-point average, it was about something else equally compelling: his future in the only country he has ever known.
"I consider myself an American," Gomes said this week, sitting on a couch in his relatives’ home, leafing through a children’s Bengali alphabet book that he could not decipher.
Gomes had been scheduled to be escorted to a plane Friday at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York to join his mother in Kolkata, where she was deported last year. There, Cecilia Gomes said in a telephone interview, he would share a room with three other relatives in a slum neighborhood where he would be unable to speak the language, face health risks and have few prospects to pursue his dream of becoming a doctor.
"Yes, he’s not going to get a mom’s love and a dad’s love," she said. "But he’s 17. His life is going to start. He has so many dreams. . . . I would rather sacrifice not seeing him and see him be successful."
Those who call for stricter restrictions on immigration say children who were brought here as infants by illegal immigrants should not be given a free pass into the country.
"Obviously, kids in this situation are sympathetic cases," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tighter controls. "My real concern is that it not become a policy that all people in this position won’t be deported because that then creates expectations and that really is a formalized amnesty."
The government’s process of tracking down and deporting Yves’s parents and its continued close watch on the high school student stand in contrast to the experience of Carlos A. Martinelly-Montano, who is charged with killing a nun and injuring two others in Prince William County while driving drunk. The Bolivian immigrant, who allegedly entered the United States illegally at 8 with his parents and sister, has been awaiting a deportation hearing after two convictions for drunken driving in 2007 and 2008.
Advocates of tougher enforcement, such as Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, cite Martinelly-Montano’s case to buttress their criticism of the system.
Yet ICE is deporting record numbers of illegal immigrants. It is on track to remove about 400,000 this fiscal year, 25 percent more than in 2007. Authorities highlight their focus on more serious offenders. They report that 51 percent of deportees this year have been convicted of crimes, on top of immigration violations. In 2008, criminal deportees made up fewer than one-third of people forced to leave the United States.
Immigrant advocates complain that too many noncriminal illegal immigrants are being swept up in tougher enforcement strategies. Examples such as Yves Gomes are among the most attractive cases — good students who would qualify for the DREAM Act that has been introduced in Congress to offer a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who were brought here as children and who complete high school. About 825,000 such immigrants would gain legal status if the act became law, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Activists at the Center for Community Change in Washington made Gomes a video poster child for the impact of deportation on families. The center featured Gomes in a "We are America" series of immigrant stories, circulated on the Internet. In many ways, the story of the Gomes (rhymes with "domes") family is a typical illegal immigrant drama, though Yves’s ultimate good fortune is not.
Robin and Cecilia Gomes had tourist visas when they brought 14-month-old Yves to visit relatives in Silver Spring in 1994, according to lawyers, advocates and family members. The parents immediately set about establishing legal residency. During the process they obtained work permits and paid taxes. Robin was a hotel waiter; Cecilia became an assistant professor of computer science at Northern Virginia Community College. She gave birth to a second son, Aaron, now 15, an American citizen.
Robin Gomes’s appeal for political asylum was denied in 2006, and the family was ordered to leave the country. By that time, the family’s life was so rooted in the United States, it seemed impossible to go, Cecilia Gomes said. In 2008, the family was stopped by police for a faulty taillight. Days later, immigration agents surrounded its house off New Hampshire Avenue and detained Robin Gomes. It was the last time Yves and Aaron saw their father, who was deported to his native Bangladesh.
Cecilia Gomes had to wear an ankle bracelet as she was given time to sell the family’s house and organize their affairs before being deported last year to her native India. The boys moved in with their great uncle and aunt, Henry and Dominica Gomes, who are naturalized U.S. citizens.
Then it was Yves’s turn. The family’s immigration attorney, Cynthia Groomes Katz, who said she cut her fees in half because she believed in the case, won a delay in his deportation so he could finish high school.
During what looked like his final days here, he spent as much time as he could shooting hoops with close friends, college-bound fellow AP students. He couldn’t face the empty suitcase on the floor of his bedroom.
For the past two years, he had dwelt in ambiguity. He tried to stay busy. He ran cross-country track and took as many AP classes as possible, so that if he couldn’t go to a U.S. college, he would have completed some college-level coursework.
"He’s one of the smartest students we’ve had here at Paint Branch," said Richard Lee, his AP chemistry teacher. "He’s just a really likable individual, very modest, very humble. I know whatever he does in the future he’s going to make a positive impact. That’s the number one reason I want him to stay."
Then, Tuesday evening, immigration authorities granted Katz’s last-ditch request for "deferred action" on the case. His case will be reviewed again in two years, she said.
ICE deferred action on only 408 pending deportations in fiscal 2009, compared with 387,790 total deportations, said Gillian Brigham, public affairs officer.
Brigham said that she could not discuss Yves’s case because of privacy issues but that in general, deferred action is a discretionary tool that might be granted depending on the circumstances of a case, including humanitarian reasons. "It doesn’t mean they won’t be removed at some point in the future," she said.
Yves said he has been accepted at several universities, including the U-Md. Facing deportation, he did not commit to any before their deadlines. First on his to-do list is to see whether he can still enroll. Katz is going to file papers for a green card. Cecilia Gomes is pursuing legal remedies to return to the United States, Katz said.
"I just feel so much happiness," Yves said. "Immediately what came into my mind was: What am I going to do now? I can’t just sit around. And I thought about all the other thousands of kids who are in same situation as mine."