Pedro Espinoza is an immigration Rorschach test.

You can see anything you want in him. An illegal who shouldn't be here, and yet came up in our schools, at our expense. A symbol of a broken immigration system that ignores human potential. A Tucsonan who is forbidden to dream.

He was born on the other side of the line, in Tijuana, Mexico. And he crossed that line when he was 3 or 4 months old. His father came here for work, and Tucson became home.

When Espinoza was five or so, his father died. But instead of returning to Tijuana, the family slipped into the shadows. Home for the past 10 or 11 years has been a small trailer in the Miracle Mile area - tucked away behind the hourly motels and industrial shops that are so common in that part of town.

This home is the kind of place we all at least know of, but don't always see. Dark, sparse rooms kept immaculately clean by his mother. Kids living on top of each other. Laundry strung out on a chain-link fence.

"This is a kid who is as poor as a church mouse," said Julie Cota, who took Espinoza under her wing as a counselor in the Amphitheater School District.

He came up through Amphi's schools. Nash Elementary. La Cima Middle School. Amphi High. And then he bounced around charter schools, eventually ending up at Pima Vocational High School. At 19, he still doesn't have his diploma, although he wants one. But that's on hold for now.

For most of his childhood, he thought he was just another Tucson kid. He dreamed - just like I once did - of playing basketball at the University of Arizona. Cota remembers talking to Espinoza about his citizenship status when he was in middle school. But Espinoza said reality didn't hit home until his freshman year.

"I was always telling my mom, you know, that I want to go and play for the UA, and she would tell me, 'You have to have citizenship,' " he said. "That threw me off."

You know where this is going. The kid is facing deportation.

Back in early November, he was riding his bike home at night to get some clothes for a camping trip when Tucson police stopped him for not having a light. They asked for his ID. He didn't have any. They searched his name. He didn't exist.

"Eventually this would have come to a head for him one way or another," remarked Maurice Goldman, Espinoza's attorney. "There's only so long where you can just live in the shadows."

He has no criminal record. He's no thug. But he wended his way to the Pinal County jail in Florence as an immigration detainee, costing taxpayers $59.64 a day, waiting to be deported to a country he doesn't know. It wasn't until Goldman became involved in December that he received a bond for $3,500.

To raise money, Espinoza's sisters and his girlfriend, Tangie Ruiz, held bake sales, yard sales and car washes. They went door-to-door selling cakes. They raised $600.

Espinoza would probably still be languishing in jail if Rob Roberts hadn't stepped in and posted the bond. Roberts, a former counselor at Amphi High, heard about the case online via Cota. He knew Espinoza's family from his counseling days.

"Quite honestly, I didn't think it was fair for him to be locked up," Roberts said. "I'm hoping something positive will come from this."

So that's where things stand. And here's where things are going: Espinoza and his girlfriend are planning to get married.

"It's something we're getting rushed into, just because I don't want him to get deported," Tangie Ruiz said. "And I want to marry him. So it's something I really want to do, but it's something I feel rushed into."

Tangie Ruiz is 16.

Some readers will undoubtedly see Pedro Espinoza as an illegal who needs to be deported. A kid who never should have been here in the first place. Not our problem.

Others will see the need for the Dream Act. Even state Rep. John Kavanagh, a Republican out of Fountain Hills who is pushing hard to change the 14th Amendment, said cases like Espinoza's justify some limited form of the stalled legislation.

And others like Jennifer Allen of the Border Action Network will see a broken system that tears apart families and communities. A system that can't tell the difference between a criminal and a kid like Espinoza. One that "has zero flexibility and zero options for people like Pedro."

I see an immigration system that robs kids like Pedro Espinoza of untapped potential. One that offers no incentives for their futures.

It shouldn't take a teenage marriage to keep Espinoza with us, but this is the immigration system we have chosen to live with.

While he may be here illegally, the real crime falls on all of us for tolerating this system, and failing to find any sort of working compromise.

Contact columnist Josh Brodesky at 573-4242 or