Neto's Tucson: 'Dreamer' turns self in just weeks before Obama order

2012-06-24T00:00:00Z Neto's Tucson: 'Dreamer' turns self in just weeks before Obama orderErnesto Portillo Jr. Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

On May 17, José Terrazas graduated with honors from Pima Community College.

Seven days later the 22-year-old Terrazas was in the custody of the U.S. Border Patrol.

He had turned himself in.

"I did it out of desperation," said Terrazas. "Basically I just wanted to get my case heard by a judge."

He got his hearing and was released on a $2,000 bond June 19 - four days after President Obama announced an executive order on deportation. The directive will allow hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants to remain in this country without fear of deportation.

Obama's announcement came too late for Terrazas but he doesn't regret his bold and virtually unheard-of action.

"He put himself at exceptionally great risk," said Margo Cowan, his attorney and an immigration activist for 40 years.

"He's an American in every sense of the word," said Cowan, who took his case after Terrazas was incarcerated.

Obama's change of policy will allow immigrants, called "Dreamers," who fit a specific criteria, to work, obtain drivers licenses and other documents. It is not amnesty, as they will not be granted permanent legal status.

This is what Terrazas wanted when he made his gutsy move.

When the incredulous Border Patrol agent picked him up, he asked Terrazas why he spoke English so well. Terrazas answered, "Because I've been here most of my life."

Terrazas was 2 years old when his parents left Mexico City for California on a tourist visa. Later his father secured a student visa to attend college.

"As a young kid I grew up like everyone else," said Terrazas.

Five years ago the family's legal status changed when the visa expired.

The Terrazas, who had since moved to Tucson, began to work and live in the shadows. They feared discovery and deportation. The passage of SB 1070 and the state's hardening policies made their lives fightingly uncertain.

"Driving is a big issue for my parents," said Terrazas, whom I met at a coffee shop in midtown Friday afternoon. It was the first time he talked at length about his experience.

His parents' insistence that their son continue his education overshadowed their real fears. Terrazas enrolled in Pima Community College and set his goal of becoming a firefighter.

In December Terrazas graduated from a six-month firefighting training academy, earning his basic firefighter's state certification.

In May he completed PCC's fire science program with a 3.6 grade-point average.

With no legal status, Terrazas knew he had no future as a firefighter. Neither did he want a life of low-end jobs as a laborer. He had become a father and he wanted something better for his daughter and himself.

His emotions were running high as Congress failed to approve the DREAM Act. Hopelessness crashed his world as immigration became a more volatile subject.

"I was unable to do what I love to do, and what I was certified to do," he said.

He began to contemplate the unthinkable. He was willing to risk deportation for himself and possibly his parents.

Terrazas was detained for 26 days, all but three in Florence, he said.

Inside detention he saw a side of our immigration policy that's rarely seen or talked about.

"It's inhuman," Terrazas said.

The incarcerated are degraded, called names, treated like cattle, he said.

But Terrazas found sympathy from some immigration agents and correctional officers when they found out what Terrazas had done.

It shouldn't have come to this, he said. Obama could have acted sooner, which would have saved tens of thousands of other young people from being incarcerated and deported.

"I did it because nothing was happening," he said.

Now that something has happened, Terrazas said he looks forward to work as a firefighter, being a dad and to helping others understand the dreams of Dreamers.

He has also changed.

"For me it's transcended the whole political situation. It has helped me appreciate the little things," he said.

Ernesto "Neto" Portillo Jr. is editor of La Estrella de Tucsón. Contact him at (520) 573-4187 or at

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