WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Uriel Alberto would seem to be a strong candidate for the recent federal policy change that temporarily protects certain young, undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Thousands of applicants lined up last week to file forms under the new policy, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. It offers a two-year waiver from deportation to immigrants aged 30 and younger who were brought to the U.S. by their parents before age 16.
Alberto, 25, moved to the U.S. illegally from Mexico with his immigrant parents at age 7. He graduated from a U.S. high school — another requirement of the new policy — where he was a track standout. He now works as a paralegal in North Carolina.
But like many young immigrants who would otherwise qualify, Alberto faces imminent deportation because of nonviolent scrapes with the law. The latest was in February after he was charged with disorderly conduct for protesting immigration legislation during a hearing at the North Carolina Legislature.
Alberto's subsequent conviction and 15-day jail stay triggered a deportation detainer from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Given previous convictions — one, involving drinking and driving, was overturned on appeal Thursday — Alberto's chances of qualifying for the deferred action program seem slim.
The policy excludes anyone "convicted of a felony offense, a significant misdemeanor offense or three or more misdemeanor offenses."
There are no reliable estimates for the number of otherwise eligible young immigrants with misdemeanor records, according to representatives from ICE and the Migration Policy Institute, which tracks immigration issues. But many potential deferred-action applicants, like Alberto, are now struggling to remove or reduce minor convictions, immigration advocates say.
Alberto is challenging the disorderly conduct conviction in state court and the deportation detainer in federal immigration court. Two lawyers are working pro bono on the cases as Alberto continues to speak out against the immigration policies he was protesting when arrested.
"I know it's a long shot," Alberto said as he wolfed down a sausage biscuit at a fast-food restaurant on his way to work one recent morning. "But whoever really looks at my case will see, sure, I have some blemishes, but they are greatly outweighed my by merits and my accomplishments."
Alberto's immigration lawyer, Helen Parsonage, said, "Uriel has a lot going for him. He's intelligent, educated, a college athlete. He has made a tremendous contribution to this country."
Cynthia Martinez, 21, who was arrested along with Alberto at the legislative protest, said he could have easily avoided the deportation detainer by remaining silent.
"It took a lot of courage for him to stand up and be heard," said Martinez, who does not face deportation for her protest arrest.
The deferred-action policy guarantees that qualified immigrants will not be deported for two years, an exclusion that is renewable. They will also be eligible to apply for work permits, Social Security cards and driver's licenses.
Citizenship and Immigration Services says as many as 1.2 million immigrants may qualify.
A spokesman for ICE said the agency had determined that, based on Alberto's misdemeanor record, he does not now qualify. But if Alberto provided evidence of a change in his record, such as dismissals of misdemeanor convictions, the agency would take that into account. The dismissal of the 2008 case involving drinking and driving improves Alberto's chances.
Parsonage, the immigration lawyer, said she discovered that Alberto had pleaded guilty in 2008, on the advice of his lawyer at the time, even though his blood-alcohol level was well below the legal limit. The case was dismissed Thursday.
Alberto and two other undocumented immigrants affiliated with an immigrant rights group called NC Dream Team interrupted a legislative hearing in February on measures to tighten restrictions on illegal immigrants.
"My name is Uriel Alberto," he told the hearing. "I am undocumented and unafraid and unashamed. I refuse to be bullied or intimidated by this committee. I choose to empower my community."
Alberto said he complied with security officers' orders to leave the hearing and did not resist arrest. He pleaded guilty under a so-called Alford plea, in which he maintained his innocence but conceded that prosecutors had evidence to convict him. His lawyer, Scott Holmes, appealed and Alberto is awaiting a hearing.
Cynthia Martinez and the one other protester entered a first-time offender program and will have their charges dismissed if they perform community service and stay out of trouble. Meanwhile, Alberto's supporters have staged rallies on his behalf and donated $5,000 for his bond.
Alberto jokes about his slight Southern accent. He says he never returned to Mexico after leaving at age 7.
"I'm a Southern boy. America, the South — it's all I know," said Alberto, who lived in East Los Angeles for a year before moving with his parents to North Carolina at age 8. "I grew up here. I live here."
Alberto said his undocumented parents still live in Winston-Salem and have "learned to navigate the system." Two sisters and a brother were born in the U.S. and are citizens. Another sister was born in Mexico but qualifies for deportation deferral, he said.
Alberto attended private Lees-McRae College in North Carolina on a partial track scholarship but dropped out after three semesters because he ran out of money.
"It's frustrating to have dreams and ambitions crushed because you don't have a nine-digit number" — a Social Security number — he said.
Ron Woodard, co-founder of NC Listen, a nonprofit group that advocates stricter controls on illegal immigration, said he had little sympathy for "illegal aliens," even those brought to the U.S. as children. He said he had even less patience with those, like Alberto, with misdemeanor records.
"Their parents broke the law — they have to face the consequences," Woodard said. "And if they break the law, they have to face the consequences for that."
Young adults like Alberto should return to their home countries, where they are citizens and can legally attend college and find jobs, Woodard said. He called the deferred-action policy "pandering for votes" by President Obama.
Finishing his sausage biscuit, Alberto hugged his girlfriend, Martha Morales, 26. Because he has no driver's license, she drives him around town.
As he left with Morales for his commute to a local law office, Alberto said his dream remained alive. He hopes to become a sportswriter covering his favorite sport, boxing. He hopes too that his lawyers can help him avoid deportation to a country he doesn't know.
"I'm a man without a land," he said. "But I have faith that everything will work out."