A University of Washington business-school graduate, who has lived illegally in the U.S. for the past eight years, was within hours of having to go back to his native Peru when Rep. Jim McDermott introduced a private immigration bill on his behalf. In the end, the bill may not be enough to save him.

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A week ago, Jorge-Alonso Chehade faced a dilemma familiar to many illegal immigrants: leave the U.S. and be banished for 10 years or stay and live as a fugitive.

In a three-day span, the circumstances around his departure, ordered by an immigration judge 120 days earlier, were changing by the hour.

The 22-year-old University of Washington business-school grad was set to board a flight back to Peru Thursday morning, the day before his departure deadline.

That’s when a rare, third option materialized for him in a way it hardly ever does for anyone else: an immigration bill in Congress intended for him — and him alone.

House Bill 3638, introduced last Wednesday by U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, would, if approved, let Chehade remain legally and permanently in the U.S. — eight years after he and his family arrived from Peru on visitors’ visas and overstayed.

But the private bill will likely move too slowly to forestall his deportation.

Such legislation typically is written for immigrants with the most compelling stories of hardship. The public rarely hears about these bills because fewer than 200 or so are introduced in any given congressional session — and only a fraction are approved.

Lawmakers are reticent to introduce them because of the difficulty getting them passed and criticism that they serve to circumvent existing immigration laws.

McDermott, in a written statement, said he was moved by Chehade’s determination. “This young man came to the United States with his parents and has overcome a number of obstacles to lead an exemplary life … ” he said.

But Ira Mehlman, spokesman for Federation for American Immigration Reform, which favors immigration enforcement, said immigration laws exist to protect the interests of Americans.

“There seems to be this idea that the only people we should be enforcing immigration laws against are hardened criminals,” he said.

“The fact that a person is a good person does not mean he should be allowed to get away with violating the law and when caught, be allowed to circumvent it.”

Unlike private Senate bills, those in the House do not automatically grant a reprieve from deportation, but rather involve a process that can take weeks or months.

With the deadline for voluntary departure about to expire, Chehade’s pro bono attorneys, Karol Brown and Shannon Underwood, made a last-minute court filing to not only buy time but avoid certain penalties.

But the action also means Chehade is now subject to deportation and could be removed by immigration authorities at any time.

Network of support

A massive national network of support sprung up around Chehade in the months after he and a friend missed an exit near the U.S.-Canadian border and he came face to face with U.S. border authorities.

He’s told his story to members of Congress, state lawmakers, immigration advocates and anyone else who’d listen, spreading it via Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.

Both of the state’s U.S. senators wrote to Neil Clark, Seattle-based field-office director for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, seeking a halt to Chehade’s departure.

His supporters faxed Clark a 17-inch-thick stack of letters outlining why Chehade should be allowed to remain.

But Clark denied the request, even after he knew about the private bill, saying deferrals are a discretionary, tool “used in extraordinary, pressing and emergent cases.”

Chehade’s supporters have now turned attention to Sens. Maria Cantwell and Patty Murray in hopes they’ll introduce a private Senate bill, which, by virtue of being introduced, would give Chehade a one-year stay.

So far neither senator has acted.

Now, Chehade said, “I’m in limbo. I don’t know what happens next.”

Came to U.S. at 14

Chehade was 14 when his family first came to the U.S. He graduated with honors from high school and community college in Kitsap County and to help his family pay for school, for a while he ran a business detailing cars, using a new eco-detailing waterless method.

He transferred to the UW three years ago, selecting classes carefully so that every one would count toward his degree. He bought text books cheap on Web sites and sold them at a profit, which he then used to buy his books the following quarter.

Although Chehade graduated from the UW in the spring of 2008 with a degree in business administration, his illegal-immigrant status meant he could do nothing with his degree.

So he took odd jobs doing private tutoring, household-moving work, dry cleaning.

“I didn’t know what was next,” he said. “I guess I was waiting for change.”

Few options

Millions of illegal immigrants like Chehade have few to no legitimate options for making themselves legal.

He and other students, brought here as children, could be eligible for legal status under a bill introduced in Congress in March.

The DREAM Act would give young people with good moral character and academic success or military service the right to earn legal status. It’s been introduced repeatedly since 2001, but has failed to win passage.

Chehade came into contact with immigration authorities in March when he and a friend attempted to drive back to Seattle after a night in Bellingham.

He was driving and had taken Interstate-5 northbound, instead of southbound. He didn’t notice his mistake until he was at the last exit before the border. He found it closed and ended up making a U-turn at the border to return to the U.S.

U.S. border officials discovered he was illegally in the U.S. and transported him to the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma.

In April, an immigration judge found Chehade had no legal basis to remain in the U.S. But because he has no criminal record, an immigration judge gave him until last Friday to leave voluntarily.

Chehade said he was prepared to go back to Peru, knowing it meant he may not see his family again for 10 years — they unable to visit him in Peru and he unable to return to see them here.

But he said he likes what the U.S. is about, that people are more open-minded here. “In the U.S., I feel like I’m in the whole world.”

Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or lturnbull@seattletimes.com