Alex blends in easily in Hawaii with his easy manner, dark wavy hair and eyes that have been mistaken for Asian over the years.
It wasn't until his freshman year at Kalaheo High School that he discovered that although he's lived in the islands since he was a baby, under the law he doesn't belong here.
His mother carried him into the United States from Mexico, paying a smuggler to help them cross the border, then flying on to Hawaii, back in the days when all you needed was a boarding pass to get on a plane.
"I knew I was born in Mexico -- that was no secret," said Alex, now 23, who asked that his name not be disclosed because of his immigration status. "You grow up thinking, OK, I was born in a different country. You don't really think about citizenship until you realize you're not one."
He learned the real family secret when he was a teenager, eager to learn to drive and perhaps get a part-time job to help his single mother, who was raising three children on her own after leaving an abusive husband. She told him, no, that wouldn't be possible. He and his buddies at school would talk about becoming firefighters when they grew up, or joining the military. That, too, he discovered, was out of the question.
"I had to understand what it meant to be an illegal citizen," Alex said. "Not being allowed to have a Social Security number, a teenage work permit, a driver's license. I realized everything else that would affect me in the long run.
"It was just a self-realization that there was nothing I could do. All my dreams, or goals that I had, were not attainable. They were just replaced by one dream or goal, to become a citizen."
The path to citizenship still is not open to him. But a new Obama administration policy known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals is giving him hope that he will be able to land a job and use the engineering degree he earned from the University of Hawaii.
The policy is aimed at people who came to the United States as children without legal permission and pose no threat to public safety. Those who meet certain conditions may avoid deportation and work legally in the United States for two years, with renewals possible. Applicants must have arrived in the country before age 16, lived here continuously for at least five years and be age 30 or younger on June 15, 2012. They must be in school or have graduated, or have an honorable discharge from the military, and not be convicted of a felony or serious misdemeanor.
An estimated 2,380 people in Hawaii between 15 and 30 years old fall into that category, according to an analysis by the Immigration Policy Center, which used data from the Office of Immigration Statistics and the American Community Survey to make its projections.
A workshop held to educate applicants drew a full house of about 100 people at First United Methodist Church on Aug. 29. Another free session is scheduled for Saturday. The event is sponsored by Faith Action for Community Equity, Catholic Charities Hawaii, the Hawaii chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and the Hawaii Alliance for Local Immigrant Voices and Empowerment.
Immigration lawyers and community representatives will offer guidance and answer questions. In addition to the workshop, the Lawyers Association is prepared to provide free help to those in need, and Catholic Charities offers assistance on a sliding scale.
Deferred action is a rare ray of hope for Alex. Children who are in the country illegally may attend public schools, but once they graduate from high school, they become legally responsible for being here without permission.
At one point his mother explored the possibility of seeking permission to remain in the country because she was a victim of domestic abuse. But she decided against it, Alex said, when she learned that only she would be covered, not her son. Her younger children were born here and are U.S. citizens. Her former husband was deported.
Since finding out his status, Alex has done what he can to make himself an attractive prospect for eventually becoming a naturalized American.
"I think I tried to compensate for not being a citizen by just trying to do my best," he said. "Even my mom would tell me, 'You've got to distinguish yourself, make yourself even better. You've got to bring yourself up.' So I focused a lot on school, and ROTC was my extracurricular activity."
His performance caught the notice of his superiors. He earned awards for "outstanding achievement" and "exceptional potential for military leadership," and for having the "most mental and physical discipline." His mentors urged him to apply to the service academies, but he had to decline.
"I had to brush it off like I wasn't interested," he said, "but I was."
Instead, he felt lucky to get into the University of Hawaii. Since graduation he has been trying to help his mother, who cleans houses for a living, and studying a new computer language. He has a Mexican passport, but if he leaves the country, he fears he will automatically be barred from returning for 10 years because he had entered the country illegally.
"Even though the degree doesn't mean anything in the U.S. without citizenship, I can take it with me to Mexico or Denmark or other countries," he said. "But I don't want to. I love America."
The government has said the information it collects through the Deferred Action effort will not be shared with enforcement authorities. But there is always a risk. The program could go up in smoke as early as January, depending on the presidential election.
"This is a discretionary program," Maile Hirota, chairwoman of the Hawaii chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, told workshop attendees last month. "It is not a right. It is not a guarantee. If we have a new president next year, this program may not exist."
She added, "Deferred Action is not a new concept. It simply means that the Department of Homeland Security has deemed that person to be a low priority, not to be deported for a certain period of time. It provides a temporary relief from removal, but it can be revoked at any time. This is not a permanent status. It's not a green card. It's not a path to U.S. citizenship."
Still, it's a gamble that Alex cannot pass up. Just applying to the university was a risk, he said. Everyday life entails risks for him.
"There is nothing, really, you can do except just hope," he said.
Recently he felt a flutter of apprehension when a police officer pulled over the car he was in because the driver was on a cellphone.
"The fear was in me, but at the same time I've always had to live with the fear," Alex said. "So I stayed calm. It's just knowing there is nothing that you can do. This could be the last time you see Hawaii."
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