Walter Lara is a scared 3-year-old, crouching with his mother under a stopped train. She holds him close and whispers to stay quiet as footsteps approach. Then he wakes up.
Only in his dreams does Lara, 23, remember his illegal crossing into the U.S., when his mother brought him from Argentina to reunite with his father. But now the Sorrento man has about a month to return to a country he knows little about.
Like Lara, tens of thousands of young immigrants were brought here illegally as children. They have grown up American, speaking English and attending schools. But if caught, they are still deported.
A bill that would help them gain permanent residency, known as the DREAM Act, is gathering some traction in Congress. The act would grant a probationary form of legalization to immigrants brought here before age 16, who have a high school diploma or its equivalent and who are deemed to be persons of good moral character. Going to college or enrolling in the military could help their cases.
For Lara of Sorrento, a former high school honor student trained in computer graphics, this is the only country he has ever known.
"I feel that I belong in the United States," he said. "I have spent my whole life here."
After high school in Miami, Lara spent two years at Miami Dade College, registered as an international student. But when he went to apply at the University of Central Florida, he could not provide a Social Security number or a valid visa. Instead, he did freelance work in computer graphics and Web-site design and worked as a cable installer.
His world came crashing down earlier this year when immigration agents arrested him and held him for weeks in a detention facility in South Florida.
And it’s probably too late for the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act to help Lara. The bill has a growing list of sponsors in the House and Senate.
"There is no group of immigrants more sympathetic than young people who were brought here not of their own choosing," said Douglas Rivlin, spokesman for the National Immigration Forum, which coordinates immigrant advocacy at the national level. "The train takes a long time to move in Congress and when it comes to immigration, it’s already started on its tracks, and the DREAM Act is on it."
Other advocates say that it’s a waste to educate immigrant children, only to send them packing after high school.
"This is more of an education issue than an immigration issue," said Jennifer Gurland, an advocate with CHISPAS, a student-led group at the University of Florida in Gainesville calling for the DREAM Act’s passage. Thousands of students graduate Florida’s high schools every year, not knowing what they will do next because they are in the country illegally, advocates say.
"We are investing all these resources in kindergarten through 12th-grade education and then what do you do next if you have this waste of talent?" Gurland said.
Cases such as Lara’s, however, are not gaining much sympathy from those who want to stop illegal immigration and warn that the DREAM Act would lead to a larger amnesty.
"Their parents have put them in a very difficult situation," said Roy Beck, director of Numbers USA, a Washington, D.C. group that advocates for reduced immigration levels. "We can’t just keep having one amnesty after another without fixing the fundamental problem…We have magnets that invite people to become illegal aliens because we make it so easy for them to hold jobs."
Lara and others in his situation feel as if they are being treated unfairly. They never broke the law. Their parents did.
"I thought the justice in the United States is not what I had grown to believe in," he said. "If we put people in the same scenario as me, what would they have done?"