Blog: Latino Ed Beat

Last-Minute Reprieve Saves Virginia High School Graduate from Deportation

Heydi Mejia, 18, is a good student who also happens to be an undocumented immigrant from Guatemala. She graduated from Meadowbrook High School in Virginia on Friday, just days before she was scheduled for deportation.

Similar stories have made headlines recently, and public outpourings of support led to some of those students being able to stay in the United States. But was Mejia’s story “good enough” in the eyes of politicians  and the public to earn a reprieve?

“What happens when you’re ranked No. 22 at a suburban high school outside Richmond, where politicians haven’t responded to your calls and school officials aren’t sure whether to spell your name Heydi or Heidi?” The Washington Post asked in a story on Monday.

Mejia was a member of the National Honor Society, and her teachers and principals wrote letters of support for her to submit to immigration officials. She also submitted SAT scores and school transcripts. But she was still rejected by the Department of Homeland Security before she graduated and ordered deported. ”For me, this week feels more like a dead end,” Mejia said about commencement activities.

But once the story was published on the front page of the Post on Monday, she got the answer she wanted from immigration officials that same day. The Department of Homeland Security granted her a one-year reprieve. She  now plans to enroll in college.

“It has been an overwhelming week, for sure,” she told the Post. “I’ve had every emotion, and now I just feel so relieved and so lucky.”

Undocumented immigrant students graduating near or at the top of their high school classes make for the most dramatic stories, and seem to have the best chance of winning public support. Media coverage also seems to play a major role, as evidenced by the decision about Heydi coming the same day that the story was published by one of the nation’s most influential newspapers.

Another example is Daniela Pelaez, who just graduated as valedictorian of North Miami Senior High School and is headed to Dartmouth College. Public and political support, coupled with media coverage, earned her a reprieve. But what about all those students who are not lucky enough to be featured in major media coverage? Or those who may just be “B” or “C” students who still plan on going to college, albeit community college, the higher education pathway that most young Latinos choose?

It’s important to reflect on the fact that there are many kids facing this situation across the country, and the impact of media makes a difference for just a few. That’s despite the fact that President Obama told officials last year to be more lenient on such students and evaluate them on a case-by-case basis.

Education Week recently reported that the Latino high school graduation rate stood at just 63 percent in 2009. Schools are battling to create success stories for Hispanic students, only to watch some of them shipped away.

Passage of the Dream Act–which would provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrant students who pursue a college degree–could lead to more students graduating high school with stories like Heidi’s. How many of their stories go untold? See if you can find one in the school district you cover, and especially consider writing about that student who may not be valedictorian on salutatorian, but is still a good kid.