WASHINGTON -- Matias Ramos, 24, was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in February after he attempted to go through airport security in Minnesota with identification from his native Argentina. Ramos, a writing fellow at UCLA's Center for Labor Research and Education, now faces deportation from the country where he has lived since he was 13. Ramos is slated to sit down with an ICE agent more than a year later, this coming Feb. 28, to make the case that he should be allowed to remain in the United States.
"It's like you're in limbo," he said. "You're relieved that you didn't get immediately deported, but you still have to deal with these issues later on. It puts your life plans on hold a little bit if you let it."
With a degree from UCLA and a work permit, Ramos would be eligible for the Dream Act, a bill that would grant conditional legal status to undocumented immigrants who entered the country as children and agree to spend two years in college or the military. The bill passed the House of Representatives last week. But as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) attempts to round up 60 votes for the bill in the busy weeks before the end of the session, it remains unclear whether enough undecided senators will vote in support of the bill.
If the vote fails, the fate of potential beneficiaries, like Ramos, could remain uncertain for years.
"I would be stunned if there were a wholesale roundup the day after -- that wouldn't happen," said David Leopold, an immigration lawyer who recently volunteered to represent Bernard Pastor, an 18-year-old facing deportation after a minor traffic accident.
"What we will see is continued removal of kids who have excelled," he said. "I think we are going to see a lot of promising kids removed from the U.S. because there is no Dream Act, and I think that's a real tragedy."
The problem, according to critics of the immigration system, lies with laws that do not allow pathways to legal status for many undocumented immigrants already in the United States. If would-be Dream Act beneficiaries come across the radar of ICE, they typically wind up in deportation proceedings, though the agency's stated priority is to deport those illegal immigrants classified as dangerous.
"Unfortunately, the reality is that when people get into the sights of ICE, they will do their job -- although I'd argue it's not their job because their priorities state differently," Leopold said.
Once in removal proceedings, it is difficult to get out of them. But some would-be Dream Act beneficiaries have been granted reprieve -- at least temporarily -- in the form of "deferred action," a status that allows them to stay in the country, although they are not actually granted legal status.
The Department of Homeland Security has no official policy stating that those who could benefit from the legislation should be granted deferred action from deportation proceedings, despite requests by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), the bill's chief sponsor, to postpone their cases across the board.
"Though they are technically out of status, DREAM Act students should not be removed from the United States," Durbin wrote in an April 21 letter to DHS officials. "Deferred action for DREAM Act students would conserve limited enforcement resources. ... Deferred action for DREAM Act students would be more efficient than the existing ad hoc system."
So far, though, ICE officials have declined to create a catch-all policy -- meaning Dream Act-eligible students whose deportations were delayed or deferred will not be allowed to rest easy if the bill fails.
"We are focused on sensible, 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," ICE spokeswoman Gillian Brigham said. "ICE uses discretion on a case-by-case basis as appropriate, and has the authority to grant a deferral of removal action based on the merits of an individual's case and a review of specific facts."
The high-profile nature of many Dream Act supporters, who have engaged in sit-ins and hunger strikes in support of the bill, might help some immigrants avoid deportation. Immigration lawyers say individuals who draw heavy attention from media and advocacy groups tend to be granted deferred action more often than individuals who go through more routine deportation proceedings.
Harvard University student Eric Balderas, for example, was slated for deportation after he used a Mexican ID at an airport. But he was granted deferred action in June after Harvard officials and students rallied behind efforts to halt his deportation.
Still, for many Dream Act supporters, advocacy has come at the cost of maintaining secrecy about their undocumented status, meaning they run higher risk of detection by authorities.
"When people engage in civil protest, they have to accept the consequences," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who opposes the Dream Act, said Tuesday when asked what should happen to the bill's undocumented supporters if it fails.
Beyond potentially impacting their legal status, a failure on the Dream Act would be demoralizing to activists who have long supported the bill, Ramos said.
"Some people have been watching every step of the Senate on the Dream Act for 10 years," he said. "It takes a toll on you to see how dysfunctional the government is with immigration. We were kids when this thing got started; I think it would be heartbreaking if it failed."