NOGALES, Mexico (AP) — When U.S. President Barack Obama began stopping the deportations last year of some young immigrants living in the country illegally, Adriana Gil Diaz realized that she had just made the biggest mistake of her life by returning to Mexico.
Her mother took Gil to the United States without authorization when she was a baby, and she grew up and went to school in the legal shadows.
Then, at age 20, Gil decided to leave her Phoenix home and return to her native Mexico where she could afford to attend college. But nearly two years later, those dreams have crashed: Unforeseen bureaucratic hurdles have blocked her from enrolling, and she's run out of money. She's also missed out on a rare chance to qualify for legal status in the U.S.
"It was really sad, depressing to feel I was so far away and that I had lost the opportunity to apply for that process," Gil said.
Last year, Obama lifted the hopes of many immigrants when he announced his government would defer deportation for hundreds of thousands of so-called dreamers, or people such as Gil who entered the U.S. without legal permission when they were under the age of 16. Since implementing the program last August, the U.S. has approved the applications of some 400,000 people seeking to stay in the country.
Gil not only would have qualified under that plan but, as it turns out, actually might have been better off getting caught and forcefully deported back to Mexico. Immigrant advocates say they know of dozens of dreamers in similar circumstances.
A major reform package backed by Obama, which would make the broadest changes to immigration laws in nearly three decades, allows dreamers who were deported to return legally to the U.S.. But that wouldn't apply to those who left the country on their own, explained Kamal Essaheb, a lawyer for the U.S.-based National Immigration Law Center.
The reform bill must still be approved by the House of Representatives, where majority Republicans say they won't support the bill as written by a bipartisan bloc of eight senators.
"I don't think the Gang of 8 thought about a situation like this when they came up with the bill," Essaheb said.
Including people such as Gil would undermine the purpose of the Dream Act, a long-pending, separate bill that would grant legal residency to dreamers, said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the advocacy group Center for Immigration Studies, which supports tighter restrictions on newcomers to the U.S.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., indicated Wednesday they would support legislation generally letting dreamers stay in the U.S.
"The reason there is a decent amount of public support for something like the Dream Act is that it's supposed to be for people who came to the United States very young and don't know many people," Krikorian said. "They have no options to go anywhere else. But these people have proven they have options to go elsewhere, and if it didn't work out for them, then such is life."
Luis Leon, 20, also returned to Mexico two years ago after living without authorization in the United States for 15 years. He too had hoped to complete his studies in Mexico and had enrolled at the University of Veracruz. But he spoke no Spanish and couldn't adapt to life in Mexico.
"I'm afraid I'm going to be left out," said Leon, who grew up in North Carolina. "They'll accept everyone still in the country but they won't take all of us who left, who did not commit any crime, who went there when we were little. I feel that's not fair."
Immigration advocates say Congress should remember dreamers such as Gil and Leon in any immigration reform package.
"There must be a way to resolve cases like these," said Mohammad Abdollahi, an Iraqi native who's leading the dreamers movement at the National Immigrant Youth Alliance.
Abdollahi said many young people who voluntarily returned to Mexico are still waiting to continue their educations south of the border.
Many of them can't afford fees to enroll in Mexican universities and can't get any financial aid. Others are unable to pay for official translators required to convert English-language school transcripts into Spanish, Abdollahi said.
There are no figures on how many young people returned to Mexico or how many dreamers were deported by the United States.
"A majority of the ones I know are self-deported because they wanted to study and encountered many barriers to do so in Mexico," said Abdollahi.
Gil had tried her luck in Mexico after growing up in Phoenix for years unaware of her immigration status.
She learned the truth only at age 10, when she reached the finals of a spelling bee. Winning would have required her to travel to a distant state to participate in another contest, but she didn't have any legal identification to travel with, said her mother, Maria Antonia Gil.
"I talked to her and told her she couldn't win," the mother remembered. "I said, 'Lose, daughter,' and she lost on purpose."
Despite such heartbreak, Gil became her high school's valedictorian out of a class of 200 students. She wanted to go on to college but hit an Arizona law blocking people living in the U.S. without legal authorization from receiving publicly funded scholarships. She also would have had to pay out-of-state tuition, which is triple that of legal residents.
In February 2012, Gil and her mother returned to Mexico. The plan was to study graphic design at the Metropolitan Autonomous University in Mexico City with $2,000 from the U.S.-based Shield Scholarship Award. In Mexico, she hoped, she could use the money to pay her enrollment fees, buy books and cover basic expenses such as transportation and food.
"My hope was for her to finish a college career because I did not study, I only went to elementary school," her mother said.
But they soon learned that Gil needed to obtain a translated, notarized copy of her school record in the United States to enroll in the Mexican college. Gil and her mother twice sent the $17 fee needed to complete the process but never received the document.
"It is very difficult, because I had to send all my paperwork from Mexico to Phoenix," Gil recalled. "We sent the money and it got lost, then we went to the bank to get another money order and we were charged $50 to get a money order for $17."
A few months later, all the money that her mother had saved for the trip had run out, and Gil had lost her scholarship. She and her mother decided to move closer to the Arizona border.
"We heard that if we lived for a year in Nogales, Sonora, we could get a visa to go to Arizona," her mother said.
They ended up sleeping at the Juan Bosco migrant shelter there, where they also volunteered, before heading to the coastal town of Rosarito in Baja California.
At night, Gil said she gets depressed thinking about the life she left behind in America. She remembers her best friend, her trips to the movies, speaking English and living in the only city she's ever called home. The idea of crossing the border illegally crosses her mind.
"Sometimes I feel that I have nothing to lose," Gil said. "It's scary to listen to the scams migrants who cross are exposed to, to see their feet cut up (from the walking)."
Despite all the hardships, Gil said she doesn't regret what she did for the sake of her education.
"They say you have to take risks at some points in your life," she said. "Taking a risk is worth more than being with an uncertain future."
Associated Press writer Jack Chang contributed to this report.