Laura Mendez Ortiz has always known that one day, she might run out of time to live, work and study in the United States.
So the 19-year-old has always grabbed opportunities. But her dream of studying abroad might be beyond her reach because her plans to travel to Costa Rica have been thwarted. Her case may be unique.
Born in Colombia, Ortiz came with her parents to the United States at age 4. When their visas expired, they became asylum-seekers and, years later, their situation remains unresolved.
In 2012, Ortiz was handed a lifeline in the form of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
“With DACA, I was able to get a work permit, a driver’s license and go to college on a full-tuition scholarship,” said Ortiz, a sophomore at the University of Cincinnati who is majoring in environmental studies and international affairs.
DACA is renewable every two years. The program expires in 2016 and, because it was made possible by an executive action from President Obama, its future is uncertain.
A 2015 report by Immigration & Citizenship Services shows that U.S. officials received 448,839 requests for DACA that year. Only 1 percent of minors on DACA are from Colombia; 76 percent are from Mexico. Immigration officials say there are 3,100 young adults on DACA in Ohio.
“I wanted to make sure I used DACA to its fullest extent. I always wanted to study abroad, so I pursued my goal,” said Ortiz, who lives in Springfield Township.
Ortiz appealed to Jorge Martinez, 53, a local immigration attorney, to secure advance parole, which is permission for people living here without permanent residency to re-enter the United States.
Both Martinez and Ortiz have searched DACA cases nationally to find a situation similar to hers, which could have set a precedent, but they came up blank. Her case might be unique, but many DACA recipients have been permitted to travel to their home countries to see ailing grandparents or attend funerals.
The University of Costa Rica accepted Ortiz into the program she wanted to study in, and she received multiple scholarships to cover the whole semester abroad as well as her plane ticket. She sent the admissions letter from her Costa Rican adviser with her request for a visa to the consulate of Costa Rica in Chicago, which handles requests for Ohio.
Officials there denied her visa. So she appealed by email to the consul, Javier Rojas Viquez. In an email, he said he would not be able to issue a visa as Ortiz has “no legal status” but only “a deportation deferral.”
Ortiz wrote back, explaining that she had DACA and was allowed to travel. Viquez agreed that she had the right to travel, but no legal status.
Frustrated, Ortiz asked Martinez to intercede, and he wrote a letter to Viquez asking him to reconsider. In his letter, he said he was “surprised that Costa Rica was … denying her the opportunity to fulfill her academic duties and dreams.”
Viquez told WCPO he had a “change of heart” and would like to help Ortiz, who is a “hardworking student.” But he said even if he issued a visa, the immigration authorities in Costa Rica have indicated that they will not allow her into the country.
“And if she is sent back to the USA after she lands, it will be a much worse situation,” said Viquez, who has been in his position for 18 months. “The one option that may work is for Ms. Ortiz to make a detour to her native country Colombia on the way to Costa Rica and apply for a visa from there, as she is legally a citizen of that country.”
Ortiz said she was shocked and disappointed.
“I have already been turned down twice for the visa, but I was hopeful. I thought with an attorney and the media calling, I had a shot at it. I have worked very hard, and I know this may be my only chance,” said Ortiz, who said her parents and sibling are undocumented.
Ortiz works as a server in a restaurant and has received scholarships from the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and is a member of folk dance group Asi Es Colombia.
Advisers who work with her say Ortiz is talented.
“Laura is a dreamer and a believer. She has ambition and a passion for learning. She has demonstrated leadership and character,” said Priscilla Ayala, a program coordinator in the Office of Ethnic Programs and Services at the University of Cincinnati.
Ayala, who has known Ortiz for two years, said the student was inspired by an activist from Costa Rica who spoke at UC about advocating for the indigenous community.
“Wanting to learn more about her Latina culture and how to better serve as an advocate for the rights of others, she began applying for this wonderful opportunity to study abroad,” Ayala said.
“Being a student leader on campus, and a voice in the Latino community, she plans on bringing her experience back to both the UC community and Cincinnati. She deserves this lifetime opportunity not only for her sake, but to continue to serve as an inspiration to other students like her,” Ayala said.
Megan Minton, an assistant director and honors adviser in the University Honors Program at UC, agreed.
“She's been planning that trip for a year since she joined this program and has jumped through hoops most of us will never understand. She deserves every ounce of success she gets,” Minton said.