After years of painstakingly keeping their immigration status a secret, Palatine brothers Carlos and Rafael Robles see their larger-than-life faces on a poster displayed on the Senate floor and accept that they have become the poster boys of the immigration movement's proposed DREAM Act.
"Would America be a better place if Carlos and Rafael are deported? Of course, not," says Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat, holding up the poster of the smiling brothers that he uses to champion the DREAM Act he sponsors. "These two young men grew up here. They were educated here. They have done well here. They have earned their way here. They want to be part of our future. And they are not isolated examples. There are literally thousands of them just like Carlos and Rafael across this country."
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Carlos was 14 and Rafael was 13 in 2004 when their parents took them and their little sister from their home in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and came to the Chicago area on visitor visas that allowed them to be tourists for six months. Their parents, who feared the growing violence in their old Mexico neighborhood, set up lives here by getting jobs, paying taxes and renting a home in Palatine. The brothers excelled in academics and sports at Palatine High School while keeping their immigration status a secret.
"No one knew in high school. No one knew until we got arrested," Carlos says.
He and Rafael, both captains of their tennis teams in high school, were taking a train during their college spring breaks in 2010 to visit a former teammate at Harvard University. U.S. Border Patrol officers conducted a routine search during a stop in Buffalo, N.Y., and the brothers confessed that they were not U.S. citizens.
The Robleses spent a weekend behind bars and were designated for deportation back to Mexico. Attorneys with the Heartland Alliance's National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago voluntarily took up their cause, and, with the help of Durbin and an outpouring of support from their teachers and members of the community, eventually won a year's reprieve from Homeland Security in June 2011. Lawyers were working on seeking another deportation deferment renewal when President Barack Obama announced the immigration policy change on June 15, clearing the way for many young immigrants without proper immigration status to apply for permission to work, go to school and get driver's licenses.
"An hour after the announcement was made, we refiled for them," says Eleni Wolfe-Roubatis, a supervising attorney for the Heartland Alliance's National Immigration Justice Center's detention project, which has spent hundreds of hours on the Robles' brothers' case.
"This whole year has been really good," Carlos says of the changes that benefit his immigration status. "You don't realize how much more you can do."
The brothers now have Illinois driver's licenses and employment authorization cards. Rafael, who now studies architecture at the University of Illinois in Chicago after completing two years at Harper College in Palatine, has a paid internship this summer with an architectural firm. Carlos, who graduated from Harper College and needs three semesters more at Loyola University before he graduates and becomes a teacher, is working this summer as a tutor for children. He has been hired to coach tennis this fall at Palatine High School for freshmen and sophomore girls, including his sister.
"We were more happy for our sister than anything," Rafael says, explaining how the girl, unlike her older brothers, will be able to get a driver's license in high school. "She was really happy."
Acquiring a legal driver's license "is the first thing we did," says Rafael, who successfully took driver's training in high school but could not legally apply for a license. He told curious classmates in high school that he simply was too busy to take the test.
"That was the hardest part to hide. I'd say my parents didn't want me to drive. They're really strict," Carlos says with a smile.
But even with Obama's policy change, the immigration issues for the Robles brothers are far from over. There are plenty of DREAM Act opponents. After the initial story of the brothers' arrests appeared in the Daily Herald, hundreds of online comments from readers supported shipping the Robleses back to Mexico, calling any leniency unfair to immigrants in this nation legally. Syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer's column in the Daily Herald called the Obama policy change a political and "brazen end-run" around the law. The situation remains fragile and subject to politics.
"It's wonderful what has happened in that for the next couple of years, people such as Carlos and Rafael can stay here. They are safe for now," Wolfe-Roubatis says. "But it's definitely not a path to citizenship. It's a policy position. It could be rescinded at any time."
Only the passage of the DREAM Act, which stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, would grant the Robleses the chance to become permanent residents with an opportunity to become citizens.
"We're motivated. We would love to become citizens," says Rafael, who willingly joins Carlos in advocating for the DREAM Act. The Robleses attended the National Immigrant Justice Center's Midwest Light of Human Rights Awards on June 22 and recorded a thank-you video to President Obama.
"We think saying thanks is pretty powerful," Rafael says.
"We really like doing stuff like this because people don't know," says Carlos, who has grown to appreciate the power of their story.
They recently had a conversation with another former Palatine High School student who explained how the brothers had forced him to give the issue more thought and led him to support the DREAM Act.
"He wrote a paper about us in college," Rafael says.
Carlos and Rafael pay the same taxes as every American who draws a paycheck, but they are not eligible to receive Social Security and other benefits reserved for citizens, Wolfe-Roubatis says. The brothers' work permits and driver's licenses are also stamped with the warning "not valid for re-entry to the U.S." This prevents the college students from studying abroad or taking a vacation outside the United States.
In a letter Durbin read to the Senate, the brothers appealed for passage of the DREAM Act.
"We ask you today to see it in your heart to do the right thing, to listen and reward the values of hard work and diligence, values that made America the most beautiful and prosperous country in the world, and that we are sure got you, as members of Congress, to where you are today in life," the brothers wrote. "These are values we have come to admire and respect in the American people. We will continue to uphold these values until the last of our days, we hope eventually as citizens of the United States, a country we believe is our home."
The people working on their behalf share that dream, says Tara Tidwell Cullen, associate director of communication for the not-for-profit National Immigration Justice Center, who adds, "Carlos and Rafael are Americans in every way that really matters."