The first meal 21-year-old Hector Lopez had with his family after arriving back in the Portland, Oregon, suburb of Milwaukie was a Christmas eve dinner at home on December 24. A honey baked ham, mashed potatoes and all the fixings.
"There's no present in the world that will ever match me being able to come home," Lopez said. "It's just indescribable. It's perfect." Lopez was released from ICE custody in Florence, Ariz. on December 23 after spending six weeks in immigration detention and is readying for his first asylum hearing this Thursday.
Since then he's been spending time with his family, and easing back into his life. His first stop in town was for sushi with friends. He's going to see about enrolling back in school after his studies were cut short when he and his father were deported to Mexico last September.
His release marked the end of one chapter of Lopez's harrowing journey through the immigration system in his fight to stay in the country. Lopez said that once in Mexico he faced daily threats and violence from locals who controlled the neighborhood he lived in. "Hiding from the world in a small room for the rest of my life was not much of a life," he said of his time in Mexico, and so Lopez traveled back to the border with his father on November 17 and presented himself to an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official, begging for asylum in the United States.
He was granted a credible fear interview by ICE, which he passed. Texas businessman Ralph Isenberg, who became an immigration advocate while fighting to keep his wife in the country, stepped in and pushed for Lopez's release from detention. Now begins the next stage of Lopez's fight. Lopez is requesting political asylum from Mexico, which requires he prove that he has a "well-founded fear of persecution" should he return to the country, according to Mark Silverman, the Director of Immigration Policy at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. Silverman said that while it's extremely difficult to win political asylum, Mexican nationals with ties to drug cartels, journalists and those who had suffered domestic violence or are gay had won asylum in the U.S.
Lopez was born in Mexico but brought to this country when he was six months old. He did not know he was undocumented until ICE officials arrested him outside his home last year, just weeks before his 21st birthday.
"The thing that gets me the most is there are two million people like me that would qualify for the DREAM Act," Lopez, who coached Little League, was student body president in high school and wanted to move to New York to work for Nike after he graduated from college. "I think it's almost naive to ignore two million people who by every stretch of the imagination are Americans."
"I may not have paperwork, but in my head I'm an American. To everyone who knows me, I'm an American. It's what happens when you've lived here your whole live."
Silverman said that in the wake of the DREAM Act's failure last month, which would have allowed undocumented youth who commit two years to the military or higher education conditional status in the country, he suggests that DREAM Act-eligible youth who get hauled in by "cops who imagine themselves to be cowboys request ICE use prosecutorial discretion and terminate removal proceedings based on the person's eligibility for the DREAM Act." Silverman added that such a legal strategy had so far proven to have very limited success.
"I suggest people do that because it's a just call, even if it doesn't succeed," Silverman said. "Because we shouldn't be deporting DREAMers."
The Obama adminstration, which supports the DREAM Act, has said it will not stop deporting young people who would otherwise have been eligible for citizenship under the bill.
"It's definitely not over, but where am I going?" Lopez said. His father is still in Mexico, and his mother has her own deportation order. "I'm not going anywhere. I'm going to stay right here and fight it to the end."