Stopped on his way to college, Utah teen faces deportation
David Morales, a West Valley City teen, was 45 minutes away from college when the Greyhound bus he was riding, and his dreams for the future, both came to a sudden halt.
Morales graduated from Granite Peaks High in South Salt Lake last spring with high grades and hopes. He wanted to become a Christian pastor and start Utah's "biggest church." He enrolled in a divinity school in Louisiana and packed his bags.
But earlier this month, federal immigration officials who were stopping buses and vans for routine checks, asked passengers on Morales' bus if they were U.S. citizens. Morales told them he wasn't.
"All the plans that I had, it just stopped," Morales said.
Morales was arrested and spent 17 days in jail before his family posted a $4,000 bond. He's now back home in Utah, but as an undocumented immigrant, Morales faces deportation to Mexico, where he will have to wait a decade or more before he can return to the United States.
He is awaiting a Feb. 23 court date in Louisiana. His attorney hopes to move the case to Utah.
Morales, 19, came to Utah from Mexico when he was 9 years old, traveling with his parents who hoped to find work that could put meals on the table three times a day instead of just two.
Supporters of the teen say his case highlights the need for immigration reforms such as the DREAM Act, which failed to pass Congress in December and would have given undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship through higher education or military service.
"David is one of those kids you don't want to lose," said Erik Contreras, co-chairman of the Utah Latino Legislative Task Force and a Morales family friend. "He is a role model. He is the kind of kid we need involved in our community."
As a high school student, Morales raised money to help homeless teens. He volunteered as a Spanish interpreter at Woodrow Wilson Elementary during parent-teacher conferences. He spoke at graduation, telling his fellow students at the alternative high school that they had climbed a mountain peak they once viewed as too tall to reach.
"He was very unique for a kid this age. He was always thinking of others rather than himself. Everybody loved him," said Granite Peaks Principal Michele Callahan. "I hope for a good outcome for him. I know he had big plans."
Morales is proud to be the first in his family to graduate from high school. He wants to earn not only a bachelor's degree but a master's and, perhaps, a doctorate. Whatever he does, he plans to spend his life helping others.
Last year, there were 590 undocumented students enrolled at Utah's public colleges and universities.
Theresa Martinez, the University of Utah's assistant vice president for academic outreach, finds stories like Morales' "disheartening." She works with students at the University of Utah, she said, who feel "hounded" by their immigration status.
"Our immigration policy is broken," she said. "These children have been raised here. They have gone to school here. They have done nothing wrong. It doesn't make any sense to punish them."
Eli Cawley, chairman of the Utah Minuteman Project, said he has some sympathy for the children of immigrants, but he opposes reforms such as the DREAM Act as "amnesty."
"It's unfair at a personal level for Mister Morales to have to face a situation like that," Cawley said. "But then again, life isn't fair. If you want fair, you join the Girl Scouts. There are lots of situations where children have to accept the unfair [circumstance] that is foisted on them by their parents."
Morales is seeking the option to leave the United States voluntarily. If he is deported, he will be dropped off near the border, potentially in a dangerous area, Contreras said. Morales hardly knows his relatives who still live in Acapulco, where he grew up. He speaks English more fluently than Spanish.
"We put him in jeopardy of getting hurt in so many ways," said Contreras, who hopes someone at the federal level might intervene on Morales' behalf. "That's what we do every day with kids we are sending away."
Morales said he worries most about how his situation will affect his family. It's possible his parents will decide to follow him to Mexico, pulling a younger brother out of school.
"I'm really hoping I can stay here. This is my life," Morales said. "[But] I know God can use me wherever he takes me."