Esaul Mendoza, a flashy forward, led Orange County high school soccer players in scoring, often with the help of teammate Irving Islas, a sturdy midfielder. Goalkeeper Hilario Arriaga, with his guile and agility, kept opponents from scoring.
The trio of seniors formed the nucleus of an Estancia High team that won the Southern Section Division IV boys' soccer championship last spring, and caught the attention of college recruiters.
But now the cheering has stopped and graduation day has passed and the boys don't feel much like champions anymore. Mendoza, Islas and Arriaga--who played their hearts out for a chance at a college scholarship or a spot on the U.S. national team--abruptly learned that their status as illegal immigrants might dash their dreams.
Universities and community colleges seem no longer interested and the boys face an uncertain future.
What happened to Mendoza, 17, Islas 19, and Arriaga, 17, isn't all that rare.
There are more than 800,000 illegal immigrants under the age of 18 in California, said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute in Claremont, which specializes in Latino issues. Hundreds are Southland high school athletes, whose status bars them from taking their games to the next level in the United States.
What is unusual, however, is that the three have Estancia Coach Steve Crenshaw on their side. He is helping them navigate legal hurdles to seek a student visa and other documentation that will allow them to pursue a college education and a chance to play the sport they love. He is not deterred by the uphill battle the boys face.
"I never anticipated that it would be easy," Crenshaw said. "I'm not throwing up my hands."
Just as illegal immigrants are limited in their ability to get a driver's license or attain a work permit, their ability to enter a U.S. college or university is jeopardized.
Setting legal issues aside, many soccer officials lament that immigrant youngsters who were coached and groomed in the U.S. don't have the opportunity to go on to play for a college or university--or the national team.
"There are numerous cases of kids [who] had the talent . . . but have had to stop short because of their citizenship problems," said Steve Sampson, former U.S. national men's team coach and now a director with the California Youth Soccer Assn. "The kids get punished and we get punished because of our inability to integrate them into the national-team process."
Sampson said he wants soccer coaches statewide to be aware of the problems facing the Estancia boys. In turn, those coaches can advise their young immigrant players to decide whether it would be in their best interest to seek the documentation that would allow them to attend a college or university.
At the very least, coaches should make sure that their players don't have false expectations about the future, he said.
"Some of these clubs are maybe using these kids for their talent," said Vince Mirabella, executive director of CYSA-South. "When they're through with them, they cast them aside."
Sampson believes part of the problem is a lack of communication and a lack of good information. "A lot of these people live for the day, and don't consider what can happen down the road."
In fact, it only gets harder for illegal immigrants in the U.S. under the age of 18, INS officials said. Persons 18 or older who have been in the U.S. illegally for more than a year are barred from reentry for a decade.
"A lot of these parents bring their children here wanting to provide them with a better life," said Virginia Kice, a spokeswoman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. "But ironically, they may be closing the door on this opportunity by subjecting them to this bar."
Immigration status is rarely--if ever--mentioned at the high school level. Coaches never address it, and kids ignore it.
Arriaga, for example, worked hard to juggle soccer practice and games with studying to maintain a 3.4 grade-point average. He dreamed of going to college this fall and becoming the first in his family to go beyond high school.
He had moved to Orange County from Mexico when he was 7, and never suspected he was any different from the rest of his classmates until his immigrant status was questioned on a college application.
"I guess [my parents] were afraid of losing their jobs," he said. "It's not their fault. It's nobody's fault. They came here to give us a better life. I thank them for that."
Arriaga said he thinks the U.S. should encourage him and his teammates to better themselves.
"We're actually helping the country by becoming successful men," Arriaga said. "We're not in the streets selling drugs. We're trying to go to college, become professionals and help the economy."
The young athletes agreed to talk to The Times because they want the public to know about their situations.
Islas, who was raised in Cuernavaca, a small town near Mexico City, came to the United States by himself three years ago to live with a family friend.