TAMPA — Felicitas Morales-Roque feels like she's finally out of the shadows. And not the way she expected.
"You'd think after 20 years, there'd be so much more," she said last week after gaining her green card, or permanent residency.
Morales-Roque, now 24, spent the last six years studying for a dual bachelor's degree in business administration and international studies, wondering if she would ever work legally in this country.
Her parents brought her to the United States from Mexico when she was a toddler. They filed for residency under the sponsorship of her grandfather, a U.S. citizen. While waiting and working in the fields, their visas expired. And then her grandfather died, leaving all their petitions in limbo.
The St. Petersburg Times first published a story about Morales-Roque when she was a senior at Wesley Chapel High School in 2003, when the artist and honor student with a 4.4 grade-point average realized she was an illegal immigrant and her dreams of college might be dashed.
She tossed college brochures in the garbage, knowing that with her immigration status, she wouldn't qualify for student loans or public scholarships.
A glimmer of hope came when Saint Leo University gave her a private scholarship. Meanwhile, community activists and lawyers took steps on her behalf, trying various routes to legalize her status. All the measures fell through.
Morales-Roque put her biggest hopes on the DREAM Act, proposed legislation that would offer legal status to illegal immigrants brought here as children and who graduated from a U.S. high school and committed to attend college or the military.
She traveled to Washington with lawyers and activists, lobbying members of Congress. Year after year, the bill failed. Morales-Roque despaired.
"I was done," she said about her mind-set at the time.
As her studies neared an end, she worked under-the-table waiter jobs to survive. The past two years, she won private scholarships for internships around the country, in Web design and youth activism, mentoring other young people on how to organize politically and express themselves artistically. She liked the work, though she had bigger dreams.
Then last year, a breakthrough. Immigration reinstated her parents' petition for residency under new guidelines adopted in the past few years. They allow immigrants to reopen their cases if they have another relative who is a resident or citizen to substitute for the sponsor who died.
Decisions are made on a case-by-case basis, said Morales-Roque's attorney, John Ovink. In the spring, Morales-Roque's parents gained their residency. Then Ovink filed for her petition to be reinstated under her parents. She won.
Officials told her to appear at the immigration offices in Tampa on Tuesday.
She and Ovink walked in. She took an oath to tell the truth. A few questions: Were you ever arrested? No. Do you use drugs? No. Are you a Communist? No. Address, date of birth?
In less than a half-hour, they were done. She walked out a U.S. resident.
"Was that it?" she asked Ovink. Within minutes, her new life opened before her, one that will allow her to move into her field and beyond the sales job she obtained a few months ago after receiving her work permit.
"Wait a minute — I can actually put out resumes and really go to work," she said. She is considering the Marine Corps or the Air Force, if she can enter as an officer and join the linguistics program. But her long-term goal entails working for the State Department on foreign affairs.
But she feels sad for many of her friends still waiting for the DREAM Act to pass. The bill was reintroduced yet again this spring. "It's the same thing, how I was losing my vision, that's how they are," she said of her friends who have college and professional potential but want to give up.
"When you lose your vision, you lose your hope," she said. She wants to tell them to hang on. But she's not sure what to say.
Saundra Amrhein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2441.