Sunday's family dinner celebrating Rafael Robles' 20th birthday was modest, but much better than last year. That's when the Palatine man and his older brother, Carlos, were yanked off a train, spent two nights in jail and slapped with legal woes that now threaten to ship them back to Mexico for immigration violations dating back to their childhood.
The trouble began last March when the brothers were on their way to Harvard University. The prestigious Ivy League school isn't a typical spring break destination for college kids, but the Robles brothers wanted to visit a fellow tennis captain from their days at Palatine High School. As their Amtrak train rolled into the station in Buffalo, N.Y., Rafael and Carlos stepped into a line for breakfast when Border Patrol officers boarded the train and began asking if people were U.S. citizens.
"We didn't want to lie," says Carlos.
Carlos was 14 and Rafael was 13 when the Robles family left their home in San Luis Potosi, a city bigger than Boston and a four-hour drive northwest of Mexico City. Their father, an entrepreneur who started a trucking and delivery service, had gotten visitor visas in 2004, allowing the parents, their two sons and a younger daughter to be tourists in Chicago for six months.
"Our parents always asked us if we were comfortable here, and we always were," remembers Rafael. "But it's not like we were going back anyway."
Their dad found a restaurant job and the family stayed in a friend's basement apartment in the city.
"Coming here was a sacrifice for the whole family," says Carlos, who quickly adds that he is glad to trade his upper-middle-class life in Mexico for starting over in rental property in Palatine.
"We moved to Palatine because my dad started working in a restaurant in Palatine," Rafael says. At a tennis camp that summer, the boys made an impression with their abilities, but more so with their manners and family values.
"I met them and instantly loved them, the whole family," remembers Anita Lee, coach of Palatine's girls varsity tennis team. "I told my husband, 'If we have kids, I hope they end up like the Robleses.'"
While language and culture sometimes results in immigrant children sticking together, "we mixed in with other kids because we started playing sports," says Rafael, who speaks Spanish with his family.
The brothers swam and played soccer, but their best sport was tennis. They also excelled academically. Rafael finished second in a state speech competition. Carlos won a Mid-Suburban League All-Academic Senior Athlete Award in swimming. Rafael, a National Honor Society member, won the same award for tennis.
"You're the only Mexicans I've ever seen playing tennis," friends would joke.
The brothers were active in school clubs and volunteer work. Carlos was a leader in the Ping-Pong Club. He voluntarily spent his lunch period helping students with special needs. Both boys were awarded the Hispanic Heritage Scholarship that paid for two years of education at Harper College. Carlos now attends Loyola University, where he studies to become a teacher. Rafael recently was accepted at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and wants to become an architect.
While aware that they lacked the legal documents needed to stay in their adopted land, "I never told anybody, but I never worried," Rafael says.
That changed as one Border Patrol officer, the only Hispanic woman in the group, took them into custody.
"Everybody else was really nice," Rafael says. "They were apologetic to us and joking around: 'Oh, nice catch of the day -- a couple of college kids going to Harvard.'"
It took the entire Saturday to fill out paperwork.
"We were really scared. We thought they were just going to put us on a plane and send us back to Mexico," Rafael says.
"When word got out that they were detained and needed help, I got e-mails and telephones calls offering financial and emotional support," Lee says, noting offers came from teachers and staff members as well as friends. "It was truly amazing to see how loved and how entrenched the entire family is in the community."
A couple of teachers donated the $10,000 bond required for the visa violation, which is a civil matter. But the Robles had to spend the weekend in a local jail.
"That freaked us out, because we never figured we'd be in jail for any reason," Rafael says, recalling the orange jumpsuits, bad food and separate cells. "The scariest part was at night when they'd turn the lights off and you could hear people screaming and howling and one guy did the crazy laugh."
Letters of support fill the Robleses' legal files, calling them role models for their American classmates and the kind of people this nation needs.
"These young brothers are truly exceptional examples of youth leadership, community involvement, and academic and athletic achievement who continue to make a positive difference in their community," says their lawyer Eleni Wolfe-Roubatis, a supervising attorney in Chicago for the Heartland Alliance's National Immigration Justice Center's detention project.
The government has the discretion to do everything from dropping the charges to pursuing the rest of the Robles family for deportation. Last week, Wolfe-Roubatis asked that the Department of Homeland Security's Immigration & Customs Enforcement use "prosecutorial discretion" to terminate the deportation process.
Homeland Security officials do not comment on "pending litigation," Matthew Chandler, a DHS spokesman said Monday.
While the government talks about deporting illegal aliens who have committed violent crimes, nearly 40 percent of the immigrants prosecuted by Immigration & Customs Enforcement so far this year have no criminal histories and another 22 percent have only minor violations, says Tara Tidwell Cullen, associate director of communication for the not-for-profit National Immigration Justice Center.
"This administration continues to focus on smart and effective immigration enforcement, prioritizing the identification and removal of criminal aliens who pose a threat to public safety first," counters Chandler, who adds that ICE removed more than 195,000 convicted criminals last year, a 70 percent increase from the previous administration.
Cullen says the Robleses are the antithesis of a threat and are the perfect example of immigrants who would deserve to be given paths to citizenship if legislators approve the Dream Act immigration reform.
"We are just really, really grateful," Carlos says of the opportunities they have had in this country and the outpouring of support from their American home. "If they would allow us to stay here, we would love to."