Gerardo Noriega, a 21-year-old Smoky Hill High School graduate, now knows he won't be deported to Mexico in the near future, but his future is still in limbo. As part of the immigration review pilot program currently underway in Denver, Noriega was granted administrative closure on his immigration case last week, meaning Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) lawyers deemed his case a low priority and will not immediately pursue deportation.
"We are happy that I do get to spend another Christmas here with my family," says Noriega. "They were happy to hear that I won't have to go to court every three months."
Denver and Baltimore were chosen as testing grounds where ICE attorneys are combing through every case on their docket and using prosecutorial discretion on each. For low priority cases such as Noriega's, they will be administratively closed -- essentially set aside until ICE has time to review it further and make a definitive decision.
Immigrant activists have been cautiously optimistic about the pilot program because of cases just like Noriega's. He is a non-criminal offender who moved to Colorado when he was nine and graduated high school. Every other member of his family is either a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident. Activists are encouraged that Noriega and other immigrants like him don't fear immediate deportation, but realize that administrative closure is not necessarily a step toward permanent residency or citizenship.
"This is one case, but there are families that don't see this as any sort of satisfaction or closure," says Liz Hamel, an organizer for Rights for All People, an immigrant activist group. "And there are families that are still facing deportations and know these reviews are happening. We're going to continue to call for more than just administrative closures. We need to look at our whole system and what's making it back-logged in the first place."
Noriega received a continuation at his last deportation hearing in May, and was set to appear in Federal Immigration Court again on December 5, but was informed that hearing was canceled as Denver ICE prosecutors are dedicating all their efforts toward reviewing open cases.
"In a way I kind of feel frustrated, but at the same time hopeful that if they granted me administrative closure maybe they'll grant me a temporary work permit," says Noriega. "They pretty much just told me to wait until they tell me something else."
Noriega was pulled over in April 2010 for a broken license plate light and was discovered to be living in the country illegally. When the Noriega family moved to Colorado in 2000 they filed a petition for residency through Gerardo's aunt and his status is the only one out of the six family members that hasn't been finalized. Last year his parents filed another petition for his residency.
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Since his case started its journey through the immigration court system he has not been able to work or pursue the automotive engineering degree he wanted to. He's been spending almost all his time volunteering with RAP, performing community service and helping his family around the house.
At times he has wished to hear a decision on his case, any decision, just to have some finality. But that could mean being deported to Mexico where he knows no one and would have to start his life from scratch.
"At one point, yes, I did want to just hear a decision, but at the same time I'm also scared it won't be the decision I want," says Noriega. "It really does put a lot of emotional stress on myself. I want to do more, but I'm not allowed to."