Yet Ray Corona, 21, has known from an early age that he is different from most of his friends: He is an illegal immigrant.
His parents brought him, when he was 9, from their home in Mexico City to Canada. From there, with his two older sisters, the family slipped into America looking for better opportunities for their lives.
He's one of millions of illegal immigrants living in the country. He prefers the term "undocumented."
"I see myself as an undocumented citizen," Corona said. "I am active and involved with my state and my community, but I don't get to fully participate in these activities."
For most of his life, Corona lived with the threat of being discovered, and being forced to leave the country that has become his only home. But he and others like him got a glimmer of hope last year with a new push at immigration reform that would allow them to stay in the United States.
President Barack Obama renewed an effort to pass the DREAM Act, which would grant young illegal immigrants the opportunity to get a visa and legally work in the country.
It's also the focus of a heated debate with critics worrying about what it would mean to allow Corona and others to stay.
What Obama is advocating is a form of amnesty that rewards people for breaking the law, said Ira Mehlman, the Seattle-based spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a national advocacy group opposed to illegal immigration.
"You are encouraging more people to break the law," Mehlman said. "The message here is, 'Hey, bring your kids whenever you can.'"
Obama's proposal had more to do with election-year politics than with any meaningful reform, Mehlman said.
The DREAM Act, which stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors, was first introduced in Congress in 2001 as a way to grant permanent residency for the American-raised children of illegal immigrants. The legislation has been debated several times in Congress, but it's never passed both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
In June, Obama threw his support behind the DREAM Act and enacted what is called "deferred action," an administrative maneuver that partially achieves the original goals of the legislation. Under the administration plan, illegal immigrants can apply for immunity from deportation if they were brought to the United States before they turned 16, are younger than 31, have been in the country for at least five continuous years, have no criminal history and have graduated from a U.S. high school, earned an equivalent degree or served in the military.
They also can apply for a work permit that will be good for two years with no limit on how many times it can be renewed.
By December, 367,903 immigrants had applied for deferred action, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Corona applied in August, paying $465 in fees, filing paperwork and getting fingerprinted.
He was approved in early November, becoming one of the 102,965 immigrants who received this deferred action. There was no data available on how many of them are in Washington state.
Corona understood there was a risk involved. He told the government he was undocumented and where he lived. The same policy that lets him stay can also be terminated at any time. If that happens, he could be deported.
But he believes the reward outweighs the risks.
One of the first benefits was that he could get a job at the UW-Bothell. He was hired at the university's Diversity Outreach and Recruitment Office to help recruit students, especially minorities, to the university.
"It opened up doors I knew were there," Corona said.
He won't apply for citizenship, because immigration law requires that he leave the country and stay outside for several years before his citizenship application can be accepted. He has never been back to Mexico since leaving when he was a child.
But returning to the land where he holds citizenship is precisely what the law should have him do, said Douglas Kerley, of Lynnwood, who is a vocal opponent of amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Kerley, a Republican precinct committee officer who has run unsuccessfully for the Legislature, believes undocumented immigrants should be required to leave the country and apply to enter legally.
"Our country is built on immigration, but we have a process," Kerley said. "If you don't enforce the law equally for everyone, then the law is not being enforced."
America should bring in the best and brightest into the country, Kerley emphasizes. He says hard-working, taxpaying immigrants would only benefit everyone here.
The Center of Immigration Studies, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington, D.C., also is against such amnesty, because the group believes that would encourage more illegal immigration, said Jon Feere, a legal policy analyst for the center.
The center favors some reform -- including passing the DREAM Act for minors -- but only if it's tied to more stringent enforcement measures in fighting illegal immigration.
Feere believes that the economy, not immigration reform, will dominate the political discussion this year.
"2007 was perfect for the DREAM Act. Every interested party was pushing for amnesty, including the White House. Most of the Congress supported it and it still failed," Feere said. "Today, the economy is much worse than it was back then. Public support is less."
Congress may pass some immigration reform, but Feere believes it will be a small and narrow bill.
"That's the only way I see it happening," he said.
It does appear to be on the national agenda after Obama waded into the issue last year. In December, the Republicans responded to Obama with their own proposals on immigration reform. One of their ideas would be to give priority to immigrants who possess technical skills and college degrees needed in America. None of those ideas went forward.
Lawmakers representing Snohomish County expect to revisit the issue this year.
"The DREAM Act is extremely important to young people who are in the United States and who want to have the American Dream, but are forbidden because of their immigration status," said Rep. Rick Larsen, a Democrat whose district extends through Everett and Lynnwood.
Freshman Rep. Suzan DelBene, the 1st District Democrat, has been appointed to the House Judiciary Committee, which has scheduled hearings for immigration reform in February.
She favors the DREAM Act, saying it can help the county by providing people fill jobs in agriculture and technological fields.
"We need an immigration reform that passes a pathway towards citizenship, creates a strong work force and provides a way for immigrant families to live in the United States with dignity," she said. "Congress has been slow to act, and it's important to make it a priority."
As the issue is debated in Congress, it will have lasting meaning for people in Snohomish County, including Corona and Ana Karen Garcia.
She's an 18-year-old whose parents brought her from Mexico when she was 7. Garcia graduated from Monroe High School last year and she's applied for deferred action and was accepted earlier this month.
She hopes she can now get a job and pursue a career in cosmetology.
"This is one way for me to become legal," Garcia said.
While she believes that both sides have valid points in the immigration debate, Garcia strongly believes that the DREAM Act should be approved: "It should have passed a long time ago," she said.
After being notified that he was accepted for deferred action, Corona traveled to Kansas City, Mo., last month to attend a pro-immigration rally with about 600 people from all over the country who are in favor of the DREAM Act.
"It was definitely exciting," he said. "Coming from Washington I realize how privileged we are. It's nothing compared to other parts of the country like in California or in other southwestern states."
While he's become engaged in the debate on the issue, he's involved because it's deeply personal for him and his family. He and one sister have been granted deferred action. His older sister doesn't qualify.
"There have been 12 years of uncertainty and fear," Corona said. "Now, our situation will improve."
Alejandro Dominguez: 425-339-3422; firstname.lastname@example.org.
The DREAM Act was first introduced to Congress in 2001 and several versions of the bill have been debated over the years. To see the bills, go to beta.congress.gov and type "DREAM Act" into the search toolbar.
To learn more about "deferred action," visit the Department of Homeland Security at www.dhs.gov/deferred-action.
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