Indianapolis, IN (written by John Tuohy/Indianapolis Star) -- The emails are tinged with desperation and despair: "We must speed everything because I can not be here any longer." "What's going on? Did you hear from the consulate yet?"
Elizabeth Olivas, 18, wants to come home.
The star student is scheduled to deliver Frankfort High School's Class of 2012 salutatorian speech Saturday, but she is stuck in Chihuahua, Mexico -- trapped by a technicality.
She has been there six weeks already. And the U.S. Consulate in Juarez has told her she is banned from returning to the United States for three years.
Now, Olivas is frantically trying to get the consulate to reconsider in time for her to graduate with her class.
Students are confounded, upset.
"They are super sad," Principal Steve Edwards said. "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."
Although Olivas has lived in Indiana since the age of 4, immigration law required her to travel to her native Mexico within six months of her 18th birthday to get a visa, or green card.
She made the trip but was one day late.
The winter homecoming queen and a standout athlete, Olivas already has missed an academic awards ceremony and her senior prom. She still holds out hope of delivering the salutatorian address at graduation.
"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 said. "Everything she knows and loves."
Olivas seems to sense her diminishing chances of returning by Saturday.
"Time is running out," she wrote in a May 21 email to her Indianapolis lawyer, Sarah Moshe. "Thursday is mandatory rehearsal for graduation."
More than 64,000 undocumented immigrant children graduate from U.S. high schools every year. Most were brought across the country's borders at a young age and didn't know they were here illegally until they tried to get a driver's license or a Social Security card, said Michele Waslin, a senior policy analyst for the American Immigration Council in Washington, D.C.
"They are put in this incredible tricky situation through no fault of their own, and then we have this extremely complicated process they have to go through if they want to stay here," Waslin said.
The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 sets the clock ticking for such children after they turn 18. From then on, they are considered an "unlawful presence" in the United States and have 180 days to get a visa.
Olivas was brought from Chihuahua in 1998. She turned 18 on Oct. 19.
On April 17, she rushed with her father, a naturalized U.S. citizen, to Mexico to beat the 180-day deadline.
She was told at the U.S. Consulate in Juarez that she had arrived on Day 181. That means she can't come back to the U.S. for three years unless she gets a waiver, a process that can take several months.
Moshe said she waited until near the deadline to send Olivas, who has a 3.9672 grade-point average, to Mexico so she would miss as little school as possible.
Moshe said her firm, like many, uses a legal-calendar company to keep track of key dates. She said the company did not take into account that this is a leap year, with an extra day in February.
"She feels awful, terrible, devastated," Moshe said of Olivas. "The whole situation is crazy."
Although Olivas has been out of school six weeks, she has been able to do her homework online, and her grades have not suffered, Edwards said. Olivas plans to go to college and major in nursing, he said.
Hoping for help
The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors, or DREAM, Act would provide another path to permanent residency for many young adults brought here as children.
First introduced in 2001 and resubmitted in several forms since, it would essentially grant residency to undocumented immigrants who enroll in college or the military for two years.
But the bill has failed to pass both chambers of Congress to become law.
Meanwhile, the number of deportations has increased from 189,000 in 2001 to 387,242 in 2010, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Deportations dipped in 2011 to 229,686.
The visa that Olivas is seeking grants her permanent residency but not the right to vote.
For that, she needs to become a U.S. citizen, said Susan Brouillette, who works in constituent services for Sen. Richard Lugar's office, which has been helping Olivas.
Olivas must now hope for an expedited waiver or a "humanitarian parole" if she wants to make graduation in time. To qualify, she must show extreme hardship to herself or her family if she doesn't return to the U.S.
"There are a number of different ways to prove that; it doesn't necessarily have to be life or death," Brouillette said.
The waiver would get her the visa, but the humanitarian parole would allow her to return only for a limited time.
Brouillette said the State Department and the consulate in Mexico "both seemed amenable to getting an expedited waiver."
But the final decision is up to the Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Juarez.
Maria Elena-Upson, a Dallas-based spokeswoman for USCIS, said the agency doesn't like to take waiver applications out of turn.
"We can't take people out of line and bring them to the front," she said. "There are a lot of people seeking waivers, and it is first come, first served."
She did not know how many people need waivers but said it usually takes two or three months. Brouillette said it can take up to eight months.
"I can sympathize with this situation, but it would not be correct," Elena-Upson said, adding that she could not comment specifically about Olivas' case.