Multiracial Young People Holding Hands in a Circle

"With his kin gone back to Mexico, the 18-year-old currently lives in Tucson with the family of his closest buddy."

It’s been 24 years since I moved to Arizona and nothing much has changed about immigration politics in all that time. The sad, strange case of 18-year-old Thomas Torres-Maytorena proves as much.

Thomas, a senior at Desert View High School in Tucson, is said to be virtually everything we look for in a teenager today:  A student with graduation robes hanging in his closet for a May 22 diploma ceremony. A cornerback on the Jaguars football team who bussed tables and did yard work to earn cash. 

A young man with dreams of becoming an electrical engineer. A teen described by his friends to reporters as hard-working, down to earth and kind.

These are all qualities which typically generate zero news coverage, if not for the fact that Torres-Maytorena is in the United States illegally, brought to Arizona as a toddler by his family.

 With his kin gone back to Mexico, the 18-year-old currently lives in Tucson with the family of his closest buddy.

It’s an arrangement that made national headlines last week after Pima County Sheriff’s deputies pulled over Torres-Maytorena and two friends on the night of May 2 for driving in a vehicle with suspended insurance.

The deputy asked Torres-Maytorena for his driver’s license and ID, according to police. The teen could not provide this, and questioning ensued. 

Torres-Maytorena ultimately “admitted to the deputy that he was in the country illegally,” according to a Pima Sheriff’s press release. “It was at this point Border Patrol was contacted. Border Patrol proceeded to take custody of Torres-Maytorena.”

Torres-Maytorena spent the next five days in an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Casa Grande.

On May 6, his Desert View classmates staged a walk out on his behalf, trudging four miles from the school to the sheriff’s office in a protest covered across Arizona and in the New York Times. Late on May 7, ICE released Thomas, but not before putting him into deportation proceedings. 

“An immigration judge with the Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review will determine if Mr. Torres-Maytorena has legal basis to remain in the United States,” an ICE spokeswoman explained.

All of which leaves me grappling with the same question I’ve been asking for nearly a quarter century whenever the subject of illegal immigration arises.

Is Thomas Torres-Maytorena really the sort of human being we want to spend our limited law enforcement and judicial resources deporting?

A teenager for whom Mexico has never been much of a home? A hard-working kid whose most serious crime appears to be overstaying his visa to avoid going back to the Third World?

It’s the same question I asked myself back in the mid-1990s, when I trekked to the Arizona-Mexico border for the first time, meeting people walking north who looked starved of everything from food to opportunity. 

It’s the same question I asked in 1999 and 2000, when we spent months debating the fate of a little Cuban 5-year-old named Elian Gonzalez, who the feds ultimately deported after seizing at gunpoint from his American relatives. 

In 2010, Arizona passed Senate Bill 1070 and we debated the same question. Nowadays, the same question comes up whenever President Trump boasts about his “big, beautiful wall.”

My answer? It’s simple. The only smart immigration solution is one that draws a bright line between deporting real criminals and real threats versus arresting and deporting 18-year-olds like Thomas Torres-Maytorena. 

That young man is not the problem.

The problem is that we have spent the better part of the past 25 years chattering, bickering and twiddling our thumbs, meanwhile doing next to nothing to protect this country or to grant a teenage boy his chance at the American Dream.