COLERAIN TOWNSHIP, Ohio -- For Julio Tellez, America is home.
"I am an American," he said. "I don't remember any other place."
He's lived in Greater Cincinnati since the age of eight.
Five years ago, Tellez's high-profile deportation case caught the eyes and ears of the nation. It was called a "example case" of how immigration laws affect real people, our neighbors.
For the time being, Tellez avoided deportation. But now, his life and his family's life hangs in the balance of politics as federal lawmakers grapple with immigration reform.
The only home he's known
Tellez was eight years old when his undocumented mother entered the country. Tellez and his older sister, Andrea, then 9, fled with their mother to escape their abusive father, a federal police officer in Mexico.
“I am an American. I don’t remember any other place. I was a child. I trusted my mother. I believed that everything was going to be OK,” said Tellez, 31, who lives in Colerain Township.
He said he always knew that he was here illegally.
“We didn’t let that define who we were. We lived, we worked hard and paid cash for everything,” he said.
He went to school, learned to drive, worked part-time at fast food restaurants and graduated from Hamilton High School. He started to study engineering at Miami University-Hamilton but dropped out in his second semester because he could not afford it. After that, Tellez started working at his family’s construction business.
In 2008, he and four other Hispanic men were returning home from a construction job in Pittsburgh when their minivan broke down on Interstate 70.
Tellez was detained by Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) and consequently put in deportation proceedings.
“I was so scared. I didn’t know what was going to happen. I couldn’t imagine being deported to Mexico, a country alien to me,” Tellez said.
His case attracted the attention of the community activists, church leaders and the media. A petition opposed to his deportation was singed by more than 10,000 people.
Tellez’s supporters asked local immigration attorney, Jorge Martinez, to take on his case pro-bono.
“When he said yes, I was super stoked. Here was an attorney who wasn’t afraid to fight. It gave me hope,” Tellez said.
Martinez asked that the ICE close the deportation proceedings while he pursued simultaneously the Deferred Action for Children Arrivals (DACA) that President Barack Obama made law by executive order.
Obama’s original bill, called the Dream Act, had been rejected by Congress in 2010. Its opponents said it would reward undocumented workers and encourage illegal immigration.
What happens next?
Five years later, Tellez won the fight to stay in the country with the caveat that he renew his worker’s authorization every two years. He is now back in college, and it is renewal time.
“While I am happy and grateful that I get to stay, I wish I could be permanently legal,” said Tellez, pointing out that the two-year deadline limits both his marriage and job prospects.
Tellez said if DACA were to be eliminated, his future would be uncertain.
ICE declined comment on this story, saying it does not discuss individual cases.
But Martinez remains optimistic.
“I don’t think the next President will get rid of this program. I have faith in this country,” said Martinez, who added that the Tellez's was “a test case” which ignited a conversation about the rights of the kids who come with their undocumented parents.
Local immigration attorney George Fee said that the Tellez case is “an example of America’s broken immigration system.”
Fee estimated that there are two million undocumented immigrants nationwide and thousands locally. Each week, he deals with four or five queries from prospective clients about applying for DACA.
"I know it could be worse. At least this work authorization grants them the ability to work and study, but it could be better,” Fee said.
Here in the Tri-State, Tellez has many supporters in the Hispanic community.
“We will always stand by those who want to come to study and work here," said Jose Miranda, a family friend. "Julio was a good person and a hard worker. His family and his support system are here."
Troy Jackson, the former director of the AMOS Project -- a faith based coalition of congregations in Greater Cincinnati -- and a pastor for two decades campaigned hard for Tellez.
Jackson's input: America is based on Christian values of welcoming “the poor and the struggling.” And that the Statue of Liberty stands for granting sanctuary for those “huddled masses.”
“Jesus himself would have advocated for Tellez to remain in the United States and for us to keep all the families together. To tear them apart is simply tragic,” Jackson said.
Tellez’s mother has the most passionate voice in pleading for him because she blames herself for putting him in the difficult situation.
"I brought my children here to have greater lives and bigger dreams," Alejandra Pimental said, crying. "I want them to have the kind of life I couldn’t have. That’s why I ran away from our country, with fear and hopelessness, to this country of freedom."
She is still undocumented as is her oldest daughter, but her other two children -- Natalia, 18, and Luis,16 -- are American citizens.
Pimentel said if she could speak to Congress, she would request that the parents of the undocumented be granted legal status as well.
She is calling for “immigration reform with a clear path to citizenship” for all undocumented immigrants.
“We may have broken the law, but we did it for good reasons. We work hard towards making America great, and we deserve to live here,” she said.
She also contests those who unjustly link immigrants to terrorist attacks.
“That’s not us. We are not a threat," she said. "To want the ability to work hard and live free in this great country, that’s all we ask for."