The past three days have been like a dream for Steve Li.
After spending more than two months at a detention center in Arizona, Li, who was on the verge of being deported to Peru, is back in San Francisco – the only place he’s ever considered home.
“Finally, this nightmare was over, but it’s still surreal to me,” the 20-year-old City College student said Monday. “I’ve been everywhere lately, it’s been an emotional rollercoaster.”
Since his return Saturday, Li has mostly avoided the media and appreciated simple things – sleeping in his own bed, a sushi dinner, and dim sum with friends and family.
But he knows that his citizenship status is far from resolved. Thousands of Facebook fans and college students got the media and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein to look closely at his immigration case.
Feinstein introduced a private bill Friday to delay Li’s deportation to Peru – a country where he has no friends or family – but rarely are those bills passed, and it is unclear whether Congress will debate and pass the Dream Act next month. The legislation, if passed, would grant undocumented immigrants citizenship if they entered the United States before age 15 and were attending college.
“I have a lot to be thankful for this Thanksgiving weekend,” Li said. “It might have been my destiny to go through that, it all led up to me being an activist so the Dream Act could pass for all the people going through the same situation.”
However, unless his bill passes or is reintroduced, or the Dream Act passes, Li’s stay is only guaranteed for 75 days after the end of this congressional session.
“People in these situations are pretty much in limbo at best and, at worst, deported,” said Anna Gallagher, a lawyer for a Washington, D.C.-based law firm who wrote a book on private bills and pardons in immigration.
The 108th Congress passed three of the 39 private immigration bills introduced between January 2003 and December 2004, while the 109th Congress didn’t pass any between January 2005 and December 2006, Gallagher found. She does not believe any private bills will pass this congressional session either.
She attributes the dwindling numbers to “political reasons, and some legislators think it’s more appropriate to pass immigration reform rather than piecemeal.”
Since 1997, Feinstein has introduced 29 private immigration bills and had not introduced one since October 2009. Only four have been signed, all of them in 2000, said her spokesman, Phillip LaVelle.
Feinstein is “still trying to see what transpires” leading up to the start of the new session Jan. 5 before deciding whether to reintroduce Li’s bill, LaVelle said.
But as someone who always looks at the positive side, Li said he is not worried that the freedom he is slowly getting reacquainted with could be temporary.
“As long as I’m here and able to use my voice and help myself and all those people in the same situation, I don’t feel like it’s a countdown,” he said. “It’s just one step closer toward the Dream Act.”
A new goal
The Li family hasn’t been the same since Sept. 15, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers arrested them because their tourist visas had expired and their case for asylum was denied.
While Li’s parents were released from Sacramento County Jail and are being electronically monitored while awaiting deportation to China, he was sent to Arizona, where he was scheduled to be deported last week. ICE planned to deport Li to Peru because he was born and lived there until his parents brought him to the United States at age 11. His parents moved to the South American country in the 1980s to escape China’s one-child policy.
Li, whose legal name is Shing Ma Li, is now hoping to get a work permit to begin looking for a job to support himself and his mother, who stopped working after she was taken into custody. His dream to transfer to San Francisco State University for nursing school, and ultimately open a free clinic for the immigrant community, is still alive.
But, for now, his priority remains pushing for the Dream Act because he met other people at the detention center who didn’t have the support of thousands like he did. His next step will be lobbying with the Asian Law Caucus, which provided his legal support, to push for the Dream Act.
“I will never forget those people that I met inside,” he said. “Their stories and faces will be with me for the rest of my life as I’m fighting for people who are law abiding, tax paying but are currently undocumented.”