Teen Stuck in Mexico Over Visa Mix-up Is Allowed to Come Back to U.S.

Frankfort High School senior honor student Elizabeth Olivas, 18, gets a hug from her father, Pascual Olivas, left, …
As things looked grim and the media took notice, the U.S. State Department sent out a message Thursday: Elizabeth Olivas, the 18-year-old honors student who had been stuck in Mexico because of a scheduling mistake, would be allowed to return home to Indiana after all.

Her lawyer, Sarah Moshe, received a text message from the teen after a seven-hour-long "humanitarian parole" hearing in Mexico: "JUST GOT OUT VISA IN MY HANDS. IM COMING HOME! THANK YOU SO MUCH, IM SOO HAPPY!"

The Indianapolis Star reported that U.S. Senator Richard Lugar’s office helped arrange the hearing, and Indiana congressmen Mike Pence and Todd Rokita sent letters to the consulate on Olivas’ behalf on Thursday.

“I never got angry as much as I was frustrated,” Olivas, salutatorian of her class, told the newspaper upon her return in time to deliver her speech at her Saturday graduation. It was her first time back to Mexico since she came to the U.S. 14 years ago. "This is the only life I’ve known,” she said.

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An immigrant who came to the U.S. illegally when she was just 4 years old, Olivas knew she had to go back to Mexico to get a proper visa once she turned 18. Her dad is a U.S. citizen, so she was eligible for a green card; she and her lawyer knew that she had a 180-day grace period after her 18th birthday in which to get it, after which she was at risk for deportation.

She thought that she had done the math. But it turned out she was off -- by a single day.

So when the winter homecoming queen with the 3.967 GPA -- who is the salutatorian at her high school graduation in Indiana this weekend -- went to Mexico on April 17, she was told that she would not be allowed to even apply for a U.S. visa for three years. The legal calculators that she and her lawyer had consulted hadn't taken into account the fact that 2012 is a leap year, and her grace period had run out a day earlier. Unless they could persuade the government to give her a special waiver, she would be barred from returning to the only home she's really known.

"We must speed everything because I cannot be here any longer," the teenager wrote in an email to her lawyer. ''What's going on? Did you hear from the consulate yet?"

"I would never have sent her had I had any question in my mind," her lawyer, Sarah Moshe, told MSNBC.com. "It was a very innocent mistake… we were aware within days essentially and tried very hard to work in that time frame, but to no avail."

Moshe says that she waited until what she thought was the last day of the grace period because she didn't know how long it might take to get an appointment once for the visa and didn't want to miss too many days at school. She has at least 25 letters of support to go with her 400-page waiver application, Moshe said, and was staying in Chihuahua, Mexico, with her paternal grandparents, whom she had never met before now.

Though Moshe says that Olivas' father has medical conditions that will get worse if his daughter is not allowed to return, getting the waiver wasn't easy. The process usually takes two to three months, and the USCIS rarely, if ever, chooses to expedite applications.

"We can't take people out of line and bring them to the front," Maria Elena-Upson, a spokeswoman for USCIS, told the Indianapolis Star. While she says that she sympathizes with Olivas' situation, "There are a lot of people seeking waivers, and it is first come, first served."

Olivas has already missed her prom and her academic awards ceremony, but hoped to make it to graduation on Saturday. She did her homework online and her grades are still high. Even the principal of her school in Frankfort, Indiana, wants her home.

Elizabeth Olivas (Photo: Frankfort High School)"She is one of the most popular and well-liked students here," Frankfort High School principal Steve Edwards told the Indianapolis Star. His letter is among those she submitted with her waiver application. "This is a very skilled, talented, beautiful young lady. This hurts me and is one of the hardest things I've ever dealt with in my life." He says that Olivas plans to attend college and major in nursing.

According to the American Immigration Council, more than 64,000 undocumented immigrant children graduate from high schools in the United States every year. Some of them don't even know they are in the U.S. illegally.; those that do don't often realize that they need to return to their country of origin to get their visa or green card.

"They are put in this incredibly tricky situation through no fault of their own," Michele Waslin, a senior policy analyst for the council, told the Indianapolis Star. "And then we have this extremely complicated process they have to go through if they want to stay here."

In Olivas' case, though, there's a happy ending: The teen arrived at the Indianapolis Airport just after midnight Friday morning to a waiting crowd of supporters. She may have missed rehearsal Thursday night, but she's ready to give her salutatorian speech at her graduation ceremony on Saturday. “I’ve got it prepared,” she said. “I want it to be as if I never left.”

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