Case deepens immigration debate

Backers say Harvard student is poster child for Dream Act

By Maria Sacchetti
Globe Staff / June 20, 2010

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CAMBRIDGE — The memory is a blurry snapshot in his mind. Eric Balderas was 4 years old, curled up under covers on a raft. He could see the sun poking through the sky, hear whispers above him, and feel the swell of the Rio Grande below.

It was the day his family crossed the border illegally from Mexico into the United States — a day that shadowed him all his life and until Friday threatened to derail his extraordinary rise from the son of a factory worker, to high school valedictorian in Texas, to Harvard college student.

Almost two weeks ago, he was arrested in San Antonio while trying to board a plane to Boston after visiting his mother. Harvard officials, Illinois Senator Richard Durbin, and thousands of supporters on Facebook and beyond swiftly rose to his defense, and late Friday, federal immigration officials granted him a temporary reprieve from deportation.

His dramatic arrest, and the international attention that followed, thrust the shy 19-year-old biology major into the center of the polarized national debate over illegal immigration. Supporters say Balderas is a poster child for the Dream Act, federal legislation pending since 2001 that would allow immigrant young people such as he to apply for permanent residency. But others argue that families who violated federal law should not be rewarded.

In an interview the day before his reprieve, Balderas sat at a coffee shop near Harvard Square and rubbed his temples, uncomfortable with the attention. He had planned to spend the summer quietly working in a laboratory, laying the groundwork for a budding career in cancer research. But he has told his story repeatedly, to try to explain his life.

“I can only tell them that I didn’t ask to be here, but this is where I began,’’ he said. “This is all I’ve known.’’

Two weeks ago, after trying to board an airplane with his student ID and Mexican consular card because he had lost his passport, he sat handcuffed in detention at the San Antonio airport and contemplated suicide. The idea of returning to a country he did not remember was overwhelming.

Yesterday, Balderas called friends to share the good news and issued a statement on his Facebook support page thanking his supporters.

“I am humbled and extremely grateful for all the support that I have received from all of my friends, my community, Harvard, and people that didn’t even know me,’’ said Balderas, a rising sophomore majoring in molecular and cellular biology. “I feel very relieved that I will have the opportunity to continue my studies at Harvard.’’

At the State House, members of the Student Immigrant Movement keeping a 24-hour vigil to protest Senate amendments targeting illegal immigrants rejoiced at the news. They were happy for Balderas, who is part of the group, but they could easily point to scores of others who needed that help.

“It’s something that we constantly have to think about,’’ said Renata Teodoro, a 22-year-old who came to America when she was 6 years old from Brazil, and could not finish college because she does not have legal papers. “We still need the Dream Act so that things like that don’t keep happening and people like Eric don’t have to be detained and that we can finally move on with our lives.’’

Last night, Harvard issued a statement expressing relief that Balderas’s status “has been resolved for now’’ and support for the Dream Act.

“This event has highlighted the importance of the Dream Act in ensuring that students like Eric can pursue a college education or military service and ultimately contribute to the future of our nation,’’ said the statement.

Staunch opponents of illegal immigration find predicaments such as Balderas’s difficult territory because they say immigrant children did not choose to break the law. Roy Beck, president of NumbersUSA, a national group, said he would favor reprieves for such students only if they also included tough measures such as mandatory immigration checks on all workers in the country and a bar on allowing such children to apply for legal residency for their relatives.

“We could never support an amnesty [for cases like Balderas’s] unless these other things happen at the same time,’’ said Beck. “What we want to do is stop behavior like his parents.’’

Until two weeks ago, Balderas had told his story to the Student Immigrant Movement but was mostly quiet about his situation. The arrest transformed him into a celebrity, when he wanted nothing more than to return to his studies. Thoughtful and poised, Balderas does not have a television. He loves to read, play soccer, and watch snippets of “The Daily Show’’ on his computer. He especially loves to work in the laboratory, where it is quiet, and he can peer at Petri dishes through a state-of-the-art microscope.

Raised in San Antonio, Balderas said he was surprised to feel at home at Harvard. He marveled at the $100,000 microscopes, felt humbled by students he considers “geniuses,’’ and was impressed that some of the wealthiest students were modest and approachable. He appears most relaxed talking about learning to speak Mandarin, studying cells in the laboratory, or visiting the library.

“I love it here. I absolutely love it,’’ he said. “I love the people. The diversity. The people are so brilliant.’’

He was born in Ciudad Acuña, near the US-Mexico border, and said his father got into trouble with drugs and the law and forced his wife and three small children to move to Texas. There, his father became abusive, and his mother left him. She worked in a factory to make ends meet.

It was a tumultuous childhood — they moved seven times — but Balderas thrived in school. He scored 100s on his spelling tests, breezed through math, earning A’s on his report cards. His mother bought him a second-hand computer that he used to teach himself French. She worked long hours, and she encouraged him to study.

They never talked about his legal status. A 1982 Supreme Court decision barred public schools from questioning students about their immigration status, so Balderas grew up thinking he was American. He dressed up as a pilgrim for Thanksgiving, recited the pledge of allegiance, and sang the “Star Spangled Banner.’’

But when he was a teenager, his mother rejected his requests to get a driver’s license or get a job. Upset, he insisted, until she finally explained that he did not have legal papers.

“I’d yell at my mom. I’d yell at everybody,’’ he said. “There were times I just didn’t care anymore.’’

Balderas said he believes that his mother applied for legal status, but it never panned out.

By that time, he had already built a reputation as one of the top students at Highlands High School, a 2,000-student high school. Teachers said Balderas impressed them with his quiet intensity and hard work. He would often drop by after class to discuss concepts in depth, such as how a bill becomes a law or how Supreme Court justices are chosen.

Early in his senior year, a teacher said, his counselor sensed that something was wrong.

Balderas was the incoming valedictorian, but he had not applied to any colleges. The counselor told teacher Martie Enriquez to talk to Balderas.

“I think he’s undocumented,’’ Enriquez said the counselor told her.

Enriquez, who retired this year, said she was stunned. Balderas spoke flawless English and seemed to have been in San Antonio all his life.

After several long talks, Enriquez persuaded Balderas to apply to college as an international student. Private schools may use their own money to grant scholarships to students such as Balderas, who are ineligible for government aid. The common application to college asks about citizenship, but does not question if someone is here illegally.

Balderas decided to try. He joined the Academic Decathlon, a scholastic competition, and the math honor society, took advanced placement classes, and tutored struggling students after school. He applied to colleges and took the SAT.

At Highlands, teachers said they did not coddle him.

Jan Archer said her AP history class stood for “anguish and pain,’’ but Balderas was one of the rare students who passed her first test.

“I worked his tail off,’’ said Archer, who has since retired. “I worked all their tails off, at least I tried.’’

She said Balderas never bragged that he was the class valedictorian, and blushed when she mentioned it in class. When she suggested that he apply to Harvard, he rolled his eyes, but he applied anyway.

He discovered that Harvard accepted him online, but he thought it was a mistake. The next day when he got home after school he found a big envelope had arrived in the mail, offering him a full scholarship.

He raced back to school and into Enriquez’s class, and before long, the news had carried down the hall.

Teachers were in tears. Enriquez asked him why he rushed back to school to tell them.

“He said, I didn’t know where else to go.’’

Last month, he visited his teachers during his brief trip home. He was excited about getting back to Harvard for an internship in a laboratory.

Days later, they received his text messages and calls about his detention. They read in the news that he was handcuffed, that he felt suicidal.

In Texas, Archer’s heart sank.

“Eric’s the kind of kid who’s never been in trouble,’’ she said. “He’s never even been sent to the principal’s office. . . . I can’t imagine how traumatic that must have been to him. Can you imagine being 19 years old and dealing with the possibility of being sent back to a country he doesn’t remember? That just scares the daylights out of me.’’

Late Friday, he learned that federal immigration officials granted him a deferred deportation after lobbying by Durbin, a temporary reprieve that will allow him to work and study.

But his trouble is not over. The length of the deferral was unclear yesterday, but such stays of deportation typically expire. When it does, Balderas will have to apply to renew it.

He might get it, he might not.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @mariasacchetti.

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