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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