New deportation guidelines were put to the test in a North Carolina immigration courtroom Tuesday in a case that touches on the hotly debated topic of undocumented students.

A federal judge granted a 45-day reprieve to Erick Velazquillo, a 22-year-old who was born in Mexico, to allow time for a response to a “prosecutorial discretion” request sent to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, earlier this month.

Velazquillo was arrested in October after being stopped in the town of Matthews for allegedly using his high beams on a dark road.

When police realized that Velazquillo was driving with an expired license, they arrested him. He spent three days in the Mecklenburg County Jail before being released on a $5,000 bond. Because he is undocumented, he faces deportation. 

Velazquillo is hoping that new ICE guidelines that allow immigration officials to delay deportation for undocumented immigrants who have no criminal record or a public safety threat will work in his favor. Velazquillo is expected back in court on September 6.

Velazquillo, a graduate of South Mecklenburg High School, is a student at Central Piedmont Community College.

Like many undocumented students in the recent year, Velazquillo has made his story public in an effort to stay in the only country he has ever known.

“I can’t imagine going back to a place that I haven’t even visited in over 20 years,” Velazquillo said.

Velazquillo came to the United States when he was two years old with his mother and older sister.  

They joined his father in New York, and later North Carolina, to escape the violence and corruption of Mexico and to seek better employment opportunities, Velazquillo said.  

His attorney, Janeen Hicks, of Kuck Immigration Partners LLC in Charlotte, said she took this case to show what the United States stands to lose by not passing the DREAM Act, a federal bill that would allow  undocumented immigrants who meet a strict set of criteria to obtain temporary legal status and eventually apply for legal permanent residency. The criteria include having come to the United States before the age of 16, being of good moral character, and attendance at college or service in the U.S. military.

“We are losing good kids by not supporting the DREAM Act,” Hicks said. “Erick is an active member of his local community, he wants to finish college and become a nutritionist.”

The immigrant advocacy group called NC DREAM Team, and known as the NC DREAMers, embraced Velazquillo’s case and helped draw attention to it by hosting vigils and circulating a petition on his behalf. Group members attended the hearing.

Hicks and DREAM Act advocates consider Velazquillo’s case to be a major test of the “Morton memo,” which was issued last month by ICE director John Morton. The memo allows for immigration officials and attorneys to use “prosecutorial discretion” and elect not to use agency resources on students or people who have been in the United States since childhood.

Under these new guidelines, his supporters say, Velazquillo meets the eligibility requirements for prosecutorial discretion. The DREAM Act stands for Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors.

“If deferred action is not granted, it will render the memo meaningless and secondary to the prejudices of local ICE offices,” said NC DREAM Team member and advocate, Domenic Powell.

Taking the lead after reading the ICE memo, which tells federal agents to use prosecutorial discretion when immigrants are not considered a priority for deportation, Hicks decided to submit a request for “prosecutorial discretion.” 

Among those who deserve special consideration are college students who came to the United States as young children.

North Carolina is one of the fastest growing states in the nation in terms of Hispanic population growth. Recent Census data has shown that the number of undocumented students continues to grow, with approximately, 51,000 undocumented students in North Carolina.

Jessica Coscia is a freelancer based in North Carolina.

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