LOS REYES LA PAZ, Mexico — The chemotherapy stopped working last spring, as did the radiation. Doctors had already removed a kidney. So Harvard University junior Dario Guerrero Meneses did what any computer-savvy millennial might do for a dying parent — he searched online and acted quickly.
Guerrero found clinics offering alternative treatments in Mexico and took his mother across the border, hoping to keep her alive.
In an immigration system where even the smallest mistake can bring dire consequences, Guerrero knowingly broke a rule by leaving the U.S. without federal authorization. It may have been the most costly decision of his 21 years.
"He panicked. His dad and mom wanted him to go, and he did the best thing he thought he could do for his family," said his lawyer Alan Klein.
Guerrero had lived in the United States illegally since he was 2. His parents brought him from Mexico City to California, and they overstayed tourist visas. He breezed through school, earning a scholarship to a John Hopkins University summer school program at 13. Eventually, along with hundreds of thousands of other young immigrants, he was granted a temporary reprieve from the threat of deportation under a 2012 Obama administration order.
The catch: If these immigrants ever leave the U.S. without government approval, they lose their protected status.
Guerrero was at his mother's side when she died weeks later. But now, instead of cramming for exams in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the film studies major is stuck at his grandparents' house in a gang-controlled suburb of Mexico City, hoping to persuade the U.S. government to let him come home.
Guerrero's initial re-entry request was denied, so now Klein is requesting a special "humanitarian parole," which the government grants "based on urgent humanitarian reasons or if there is a significant public benefit," according to the U.S. Customs and Immigration Service website.
But the agency cautions against trying use it to avoid normal visa procedures. Last year, it approved only about a third of the humanitarian parole petitions it received.
Agency officials declined to discuss any details of Guerrero's case because it is ongoing. However, spokesman Chris Bentley said "Immigration law is complex; Anyone considering taking an immigration action needs to clearly understand the potential consequences of that action first."
Guerrero told The Associated Press that he submitted two requests for fast-tracked permission to leave while his mother's health declined, and was asked to more fully document his mother's medical condition. He could have tried to plead his case in person, but he left instead before getting an answer.
"My mom had a lot of ups and downs," he said. "The decision to actually leave was made overnight."
Miami-based immigration attorney Ira Kurzban says it's not infrequent for immigrants to lose their legal status by leaving the country without permission. It happens when they go on cruise ships — thinking they haven't really left the U.S. — or take off due to a family emergency. Many discover only later that they can't return, or are barred for entering for as much as 10 years.
"There's no question (Guerrero) didn't follow the rules. The question is what the penalty should be," Kurzban said.
Any immigrants with pending cases need permission to go abroad, which is not difficult to get eventually, if their requests are deemed valid. But those who don't wait for sometimes slow responses are considered to have voluntarily given up their effort to remain in the U.S.
Advocates say it should be easier for immigrants who have lived in the U.S. for many years to get permission to travel. Visas for skilled H-1B temporary workers already allow travel internationally without preapproval, and giving others this freedom would reduce heartbreak and add only minimal administrative work, Kurzban said.
But no such provisions were included in last year's immigration reform bills, and they aren't expected to be included in any executive action President Barack Obama might announce later this year. Kurzban thinks that's because the issue affects a relatively small group, and there are so many other priorities.
Rocio Meneses Diaz died Aug. 14 at the age of 41 at her oldest brother's house in the central state of Guanajuato. Guerrero's 16-year-old brother also was by her side. As a U.S.-born citizen, he is allowed to travel freely. Their father, a building contractor in the U.S. illegally, stayed behind at the family's Long Beach home with their 9-year-old sister.
Guerrero says he regrets his rash decision most of all because he thinks his mother would have been happier living her final days in Southern California with her husband and children, "but then we still had hope — and if we delayed that treatment any longer because of immigration issues, I don't think I would have been able to forgive myself."
Guerrero's parents had kept his immigration status secret for years. They came clean only when he began taking community-college engineering classes while still in high school, and the Social Security number his parents submitted bounced back.
Before her death, Guerrero's mom opened up about the past and her reasons for leaving Mexico: Her father had been kidnapped twice; her father-in-law and other relatives faced extortion; armed thieves broke into her clothing and jewelry store, holding a knife to her stomach.
Guerrero recorded her stories and her struggle with kidney cancer, hoping to turn it into a documentary back at school.
Instead, he's passing time in a room next to a garage just big enough to fit his twin bed and bureau. A picture of his mother and a single rose hang above the bed. His grandparents rent out the nearest bathroom during weekends for a pop-up street market. Guerrero sees his cousins after they get off work, and "writes poetry and stuff" at night.
Former Harvard lecturer Eoin Cannon, who taught history to Guerrero, was surprised to learn of his student's predicament. Cannon described him as "one of the most thoughtful and creative and original students that I had the pleasure of teaching," and "an exceptional writer." Guerrero tackled homelessness in a student film, and later co-produced "A Dream Deferred," a documentary about other immigrants like himself at Harvard.
"He's as American as anyone I know," Cannon said. "The law needs to sort of recognize that and have a mechanism for accounting for that ... For the law not to be able to handle his kind of case is hurting America."
Guerrero says it's been liberating to have no term-paper deadlines to worry about, but the lack of a routine keeps him edgy. He watches his back when he ventures outside. Crime cartels have moved in, extorting neighborhood businesses. Weeks ago, a relative was mugged and shot in the stomach.
Harvard has been supportive, granting him leave and helping him find sympathetic ears in Washington, including Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat. Guerrero now talks about when he'll return, not if.
But when asked what's hardest about being stuck in Mexico, he loses his bravado and his voice drops to a whisper: "That I don't have a mom anymore."
Laura Wides-Munoz reported this story from Miami and Cambridge, Massachusetts. Rodrique Ngowi contributed from Boston.