An immigrant who came to the U.S. illegally when she was just 4 years old, Indiana honors student Elizabeth Olivas knew she had to go back to Mexico to get a proper visa once she turned 18. Her dad is a U.S. citizen, so she was eligible for a green card; she and her lawyer knew that she had a 180-day grace period after her 18th birthday, after which she was at risk for deportation.
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She thought that she had done the math. But it turned out she was off -- by a single day.
Now, the winter homecoming queen with the 3.967 GPA -- who is supposed to be the Salutatorian at her high school graduation in Indiana this weekend -- is stuck in Mexico. All because she, and the legal calculators she and her lawyer consulted, forgot that 2012 was a leap year. Which means that Olivas went to Mexico on the 181st day after she turned 18 -- and unless she can persuade the government to give her a special waiver, she'll be barred from returning to the only home she's really known for at least three years.
"We must speed everything because I cannot be here any longer," the teenager wrote in an email to her lawyer. ''What's going on? Did you hear from the consulate yet?"
"I would never have sent her had I had any question in my mind," her lawyer, Sarah Moshe, told MSNBC.com. "It was a very innocent mistake… we were aware within days essentially and tried very hard to work in that time frame, but to no avail."
Olivas has been waiting in Chihuahua, Mexico, since April 17. Moshe says that she waited until what she thought was the last day of the grace period because she didn't know how long it might take to get an appointment once she was in Mexico and didn't want to miss too many days at school. She has at least 25 letters of support to go with her 400-page waiver application, Moshe said, and is staying with her paternal grandparents, whom she had never met before now.
Though Moshe says that Olivas' father has medical conditions that will get worse if his daughter is not allowed to return, getting the waiver won't be easy. In fact, the process usually takes two to three months, and the USCIS rarely, if ever, chooses to expedite applications. She'll also have to show extreme hardship to herself or her family in order to get the waiver, which is also known as a "humanitarian parole."
"We can't take people out of line and bring them to the front," Maria Elena-Upson, a spokeswoman for USCIS, told the Indianapolis Star. While she says that she sympathizes with Olivas' situation, "There are a lot of people seeking waivers, and it is first come, first served."
Olivas has already missed her prom and her academic awards ceremony, but hopes to make it to graduation on Saturday. She's been doing her homework online and her grades are still high. Even the principal of her school in Frankfort, Indiana, wants her home.
"She is one of the most popular and well-liked students here," principal Steve Edwards told the Indianapolis Star. His letter is among those she submitted with her waiver application. "This is a very skilled, talented, beautiful young lady. This hurts me and is one of the hardest things I've ever dealt with in my life." He says that Olivas plans to attend college and major in nursing.
According to the American Immigration Council, more than 64,000 undocumented immigrant children graduate from high schools in the United States every year. Some of them don't even know they are in the U.S. illegally.; those that do don't often realize that they need to return to their country of origin to get their visa or green card.
"They are put in this incredibly tricky situation through no fault of their own," Michele Waslin, a senior policy analyst for the council, told the Indianapolis Star. "And then we have this extremely complicated process they have to go through if they want to stay here."
Hope seems to be running out for Olivas as graduation day nears. "She feels like she did the right thing, exceeded expectations, and everything she worked for is being ripped right away from her," Frankfort High science teacher Shelbi Fortner told the newspaper. "Everything she knows and loves."
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