A dream awaits a final act

A young woman hopes immigration reform helps her stay here.

Published May 19, 2007

Tampa attorney John Ovink was looking forward to meeting with his client. For once, he had good news to share.

The U.S. Senate is making progress in its quest to overhaul immigration laws. The latest version would give preference to illegal immigrants with higher education and job skills.

People like Felicitas Morales-Romo, a 21-year-old college senior set to graduate this fall with bachelor's degrees in business administration and international studies. While her friends polish their resumes and job hunt, she waits.

Her family brought her illegally from Mexico when she was a child. Throughout her college career, she hoped for change.

When it didn't come, she decided to turn herself in. A judge will take up her case in November and decide whether to deport her to a country she doesn't remember.

On Thursday, Morales-Romo listened as Ovink told her of the hope that rests in the new bill. She stared at him.

Instead of joy, she felt sadness. She can't afford another disappointment. Another letdown.

"It was the same with the DREAM Act, three or four years ago," she said her voice flat. "Everyone was so sure."

Ovink tries to understand her frustration. "For me, it's a job," he said. "For her, it's the rest of her life."

- - -

On a recent, rain-soaked morning, chapel bells echoed through the tree-lined campus of Saint Leo University as Morales-Romo rushed to class.

In her Business, Government and Society class, the topic was corporate responsibility.

Morales-Romo argued that businesses have a responsibility to the community.

"Business interests are to make money, not to build up an area," countered a classmate.

"What's the point of doing business community relations in these companies if in reality you wouldn't do it in areas that need it the most?" she shot back.

In international relations class, she debates the professor on globalization. The professor vaunts free trade; she decries the uprooting of families.

When her fellow classmates flocked to the beach for spring break, she accompanied Ovink to Washington to lobby for immigration reform.

Morales-Romo attends Saint Leo on a private scholarship. It was her one shot at college, out of reach for many undocumented immigrant teenagers who can't qualify for federal grants or student loans.

Her college freshman year, the proposed federal DREAM Act promised to grant legal status to students who graduate from high school and aspire to college or military service.

Her sophomore year passed, then her junior year, but the DREAM Act never did.

The Senate deal now on the table includes the DREAM Act.

Opponents say no matter how sad their stories, illegal immigrant teens shouldn't be rewarded for their parents' mistakes.

"The tragedy of having wide open borders and big business exploiting cheap labor ... is so large we don't have time within our courts and within our budgets to make exceptions," said Bob Dane, spokesman for Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR.

The DREAM Act could divert limited university seats away from American citizens or legal immigrants, he said.

"It is amnesty disguised as an educational initiative," he said.

- - -

Morales-Romo remembers nothing about Mexico.

She does recall long car rides down the U.S. East Coast, small hands torn by tomato plants.

Her family settled in a house down the road from Saint Leo, along the dirt streets of Dade City. Her dad eventually got a job in construction. Her older sisters worked to help pay the bills.

Her parents left Morales-Romo alone to study. By the end of high school, she was acing advanced placement classes and belonged to the National Honor Society. College seemed a given.

Her parents applied for green cards through one of her grandparents, a U.S. citizen. But it wasn't processed in time.

Morales-Romo turned 18 and was no longer eligible.

A local activist, an American citizen, adopted her, thinking it would help get her to college. It didn't because she was no longer a minor.

Then Saint Leo University offered a scholarship. Morales-Romo wants to work as a consultant for international companies.

But for now, she can't since she's here illegally.

"Here I am with a college education wanting to create change, wanting to develop not only myself but my community," she said.

She holds down food service jobs under the table for expense money. The scholarship is great, but it doesn't pay all the bills.

Ovink hopes Morales-Romo's accomplishments will be enough to impress the judge at her deportation hearing.

Unless Congress acts first. Then the restaurant uniform she slips on after class won't be one she wears the rest of her life.

Saundra Amrhein can be reached at 813 661-2441 or amrhein@sptimes.com.