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After Voluntary Deportation, Arizona State Grad Returns as U.S. Resident

PHOENIX – Oscar Vazquez knew he was taking a risk when he returned to Mexico for the first time in his adult life, starting what could have been a years-long odyssey to earn legal U.S. residency.

Turned out the wait was just 361 days, thanks to some political intervention. Vazquez was back in the U.S. Monday, visa in hand.

“Even though it took a year, I feel it came out good,” Vazquez said earlier this week.

The undocumented immigrant, a recent Arizona State University graduate, knew he would need to obtain the necessary documents if he ever wanted to put his hard-earned engineering degree to work.

Last year he essentially deported himself, leaving behind his wife and infant daughter to do what he said was the right thing—obtain legal residency.

And as he settled into Mexico after filing all the paperwork, he feared the wait could stretch on for years. But the timely intervention of a U.S. senator played a key role in Vazquez’s return.

Vazquez, who received international media attention as a high school student when his robotics team won a collegiate competition, had another splash of publicity with his struggle to reverse his illegal status. His story was told in The Arizona Republic, on CNN and on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

When Vazquez graduated from Arizona State University in 2009, he was one of the featured graduates whose tale was told in front of the stadium, where attendees included commencement speaker President Barack Obama.

But Vazquez knew his legal status would prevent him from using his degree. So, he decided to turn himself in at the consulate in Juarez, Mexico, admit his illegal presence, and apply for permission to re-enter.

The government initially denied Vazquez’s request and asked for additional paperwork, documenting the hardship to his wife and daughter, both U.S. citizens.

Officials told him to expect a final answer in March. Meanwhile, Vazquez was living in Magdalena del Kino, a dusty town in Sonora, Mexico, working a night shift at an automobile parts factory.

Vazquez said he was contacted by the office of Sen. Dick Dubin, D-Illinois. Durbin, the Senate Majority Whip, is a proponent of the DREAM Act, legislation that would grant legal status to illegal immigrants who entered as children and had attended college or joined the military.

Vazquez said that, once Durbin was involved, “it was fast.”

A Durbin aide, who would only speak about the case on the condition his name wasn’t used, said the office did make the Department of Homeland Security aware of the case.

Vazquez’s story was told in The Republic on July 4. On July 14, his wife, Karla Vazquez, received the letter saying her husband’s visa waiver had been approved.

Karla Vazquez, who had been taking regular trips to Mexico to visit her husband, was about to head down for another trip when she decided to check the mail and saw the letter from the government.

“It just said, your waiver was approved,” Karla Vazquez said.

She didn’t tell Oscar the news until she drove down to Magdalena and saw him in person.

“We were just looking at it,” Oscar said, “just to make sure it was true.”

Oscar Vazquez had his appointment at the U.S. Consulate and received a packet of paperwork that allowed him to cross back into the United States.

It was a much different entrance than his first one, at age 12. He and his mother dashed across the border near Douglas into a car waiting at a Wal-Mart parking lot.

This entry was short on ceremony. Vazquez, 24, said a nearly emotionless-clerk told him that with his visa he was allowed to live and work in the United States.

Vazquez walked out onto American soil and waited to catch a bus into Phoenix. Before then, he had a meal of KFC.

His wife met him at the bus station. “It’s just hard to describe,” Oscar Vazquez said, about seeing his wife and daughter. “It’s amazing just to be back home.”

Vazquez said he realized his was a unique case and that he was aided by political pressure. Had it not been for the publicity and a politician’s intervention, he thinks he would have been denied.

“A lot of people think that: ‘Why don’t you do it the right way?’” he said. “But many people can’t.”

Had Vazquez been denied his waiver, he would have been barred from entering the United States for 10 years. He and his wife had discussed plans of moving to Mexico City, Canada or Europe.

Vazquez expects to receive his social security card in about two weeks and will start looking for work in the engineering field.

Vazquez was on the Carl Hayden High School team that beat out several colleges, including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in an underwater robotics competition. The triumph of the four undocumented high school students was featured in Wired magazine. Other national media outlets picked up the story. Movie offers followed.

On Monday, Vazquez showed up at Carl Hayden High School to talk with his robotics coach, Faridodin Lajvardi. Two other members of that four-person team also showed up, making for an impromptu reunion of that victorious team from 2007.

Lajvardi gathered his current Carl Hayden students around him in the hallway and introduced Vazquez. His students had seen video of Durbin telling Vazquez’s story on the Senate floor.

“All that time, I kept telling you how you need to fight, fight, fight,” he told the students. “It worked.”

The team gave Vazquez a group hug.

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