Reporting from Washington and Los Angeles — Early one morning in March, two Chicago-area brothers were dozing on an Amtrak train when it stopped in Buffalo, N.Y. A pair of uniformed Border Patrol agents made their way through the car, asking passengers if they were U.S. citizens. No, the vacationing siblings answered honestly, with flat, Midwestern inflections: We're citizens of Mexico.
And so it was that college students Carlos Robles, 20, and his brother Rafael, 19 — both former captains of their high school varsity tennis team — found themselves in jail, facing deportation.
Their secret was out: Despite their upbringing in middle America, their academic success and their network of native-born friends, they had no permission to be in the United States. Their parents had brought them here illegally as children.
The Robles brothers, now out of jail but fighting removal in Immigration Court, are among thousands of young illegal immigrants in similar situations, living at risk of being expelled to countries they barely remember.
Two weeks ago, a Harvard University student who came from Mexico at age 4, Eric Balderas, joined their ranks after he was arrested by immigration agents at an airport in San Antonio.
They are known in some circles as "Dream Act" kids, named after proposed legislation that would grant them legal status.
Their cases underscore a contradiction in the Obama administration's approach to immigration enforcement. Even though the president supports the Dream Act — which would provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants brought here as children who enroll in college or the military — his enforcement bureaucracy continues to pursue deportation cases against the increasing number of students who would be protected by it. It's part of a push that is on track to remove a record 400,000 illegal immigrants this year.
"It highlights the inconsistencies in immigration policies," said William Perez, a Claremont Graduate University professor and author of "We Are Americans," a book about undocumented immigrant students.
Immigration authorities say they rarely deport students, particularly once their teachers, coaches, friends and elected representatives speak out on their behalf.
Balderas, for example, was placed in "deferred status," meaning the government won't remove him unless he gets in trouble. Even so, the young people remain in legal limbo, often unable to land a professional job after earning a degree. And they live with a legal sword of Damocles over their heads, subject to removal at any moment.
"These cases illustrate the need for comprehensive immigration reform," said Virginia Kice, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. "ICE uses its discretion on a case-by-case basis, as appropriate."
Carlos and Rafael Robles were on their way to visit a friend at Harvard — not Balderas — when they were arrested. They spent a weekend in jail before friends posted $5,000 bond for each of them. They had to travel to Buffalo again recently for a court hearing after an immigration judge turned down their request to move the case to Chicago. Their next court date is next year.
Their father works for a car dealer, and their mother is an assistant at a mortgage company. They came to the U.S. by airplane five years ago on a tourist visa and never went back.
"We want to go to school and to work here," Carlos Robles said.
Several residents of their community, a Republican-leaning Chicago suburb where most people have little patience for illegal immigration, have written letters on their behalf, said Robert Carroll, a teacher at Palatine High School.
"Gee whiz, these are just two quality kids," he said. "They are everything you would want your kids to be. These kids are going to be leaders in their communities — taxpayers, not tax recipients."
In recent months, immigration rights activists have renewed their push to persuade Congress to pass the Dream Act. Activists have staged hunger strikes and occupied congressional offices. This month, about 30 students marched outside the Los Angeles office of Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.). Feinstein is a co-sponsor of the Dream Act, but activists have criticized Democrats for not moving the bill this year.
"Immigration reform may be dead this year, but we feel that smaller pieces like … the Dream Act can move forward," said Marisol Ramos, founding board member of the national United We Dream network. "Democrats should really step up."
The Dream Act, sponsored by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and others, came up eight votes short in the Senate in 2007, when an effort to overhaul immigration law fell apart. The following year, then-candidate Barack Obama urged its passage during a presidential debate, saying that youths who "have essentially grown up as Americans" deserve legal status. But Obama has done little to push the bill as president.