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From Illegal Immigrant to Valedictorian : Achievement: Young man’s diligence in school pays off with residency status and a salute from the INS, which earlier had tried to deport him.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eight years after fleeing El Salvador and entering the United States as an illegal immigrant, Miguel Perez won a piece of the American dream on Thursday.

“I’m really happy this day has finally arrived,” the 23-year-old said to a crowd of reporters gathered at the Federal Building in Los Angeles to record his new status as a legal resident. “I’m glad that I made it and I could keep my promise to my mother.”

Perez, who was orphaned shortly after arriving in this country, struggled for years to learn the language and complete high school and college--a promise he made to his mother before she died. He fought a long legal battle to stay in the United States--a possibility that seemed hopeless at one point when he was ordered deported and given only a few days to return to a country where he had no relatives.

But despite the hardships, Perez graduated valedictorian of his class at Cal State Dominguez Hills last year. And on Thursday, in recognition of his long stay and outstanding achievement in this country, he won a rare exemption from the U.S. government allowing him to stay in the United States as a permanent resident.

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Robert M. Moschorak, Los Angeles district director of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service--an agency that once sought to deport him--congratulated Perez on his new status in the United States and lauded him for persevering against daunting odds.

“Your story, Miguel, is a remarkable story,” Moschorak said as he presented Perez with a resident card. “You are truly a deserving and remarkable young man. . . . This is part of the American dream come true.”

Perez, then 14, came to the United States in 1984 with his mother, fleeing the civil war in El Salvador.

They crossed the Mexico-U.S. border near Tijuana, but were immediately caught by the Border Patrol. They were detained for several days and released after applying for political asylum. Perez and his mother headed for Los Angeles, where his aunt and sister had settled.

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Within months, his mother died of a heart attack. Cared for by his sister and an elderly aunt, Perez worked at a variety of odd jobs while excelling at school, graduating 12th in a class of 500 from South Gate High School.

“The vehicle was there. The way was there,” he said. “All I had to do was take advantage of it.”

Perez continued his studies at Cal State Dominguez Hills, where he majored in psychology. It was not until his third year in college that the government rejected his asylum request and ordered him deported.

Perez resigned himself to returning to El Salvador. But friends referred him to Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D-Compton), who contacted attorney Carl Shusterman.

Two days before Perez was required to leave, Shusterman filed an appeal with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals--a move that protected him from deportation.

Shusterman said he knew that if Perez could stay in the country just a few more months he would qualify for “suspension of deportation,” an infrequently used provision that allows illegal immigrants to become permanent residents. Under the rule, they must prove they have lived in the United States for seven years, are of “good moral character” and would suffer extreme hardship if returned to their native countries.

An application was submitted last year and it was approved Thursday by U.S. Immigration Judge Nathan W. Gordon.

Perez, a graduate student in health education at Pennsylvania State University, said he is looking forward to completing his studies and finding work in the community health education field.

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“Eight years ago, I never thought this would happen,” he said. “I’m fortunate in that I had a lot of people supporting me. I had trust in the system.”


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