Jessica Colotl has always tried to keep a low profile–obeying the speed limit, making sure her lights work properly–knowing that a brush with law enforcement could lead to her deportation and cost her a college diploma.
After a few close calls, her fears were realized last spring, when she was stopped for a minor traffic violation, charged with driving without a license and turned over to immigration authorities.
She spent 37 days in a detention center in Alabama before they let her out and said they would give her a year to finish her studies at Kennesaw State University.
Before her arrest, Colotl had revealed her immigration status only to her closest friends. In the five weeks she was held last spring, her sorority sisters marched to have her freed, her case went viral and she was thrust into the national spotlight.
She emerged a reluctant symbol, seized upon by both sides of the debate over illegal immigration.
“It was a very beautiful and scary case at the same time,” said Georgina Perez, who was brought here illegally as a young child, as was Colotl. “When they let her go, we were all so happy. But then when I saw how the anti-immigrant people went after her, I became scared.”
Advocates for tighter restrictions on illegal immigrants argued in letters to the editor and complaints to the Georgia university system that illegal immigrants like Colotl shouldn’t be allowed to attend state schools and should be deported.
“I think it’s grossly unfair to the real immigrants who have followed the rules to come here legally,” said D.A. King, founder of the Dustin Inman Society, which advocates stricter enforcement of immigration laws.
Through it all, the soft-spoken Colotl has been left wondering, “Why me?”
“I don’t like it at all,” she said of the intense scrutiny she’s endured. “I’ve never liked to be the center of attention, especially for a controversial issue.”
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