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Steamboat family hoping for changes to citizenship regulations





Alison and Martin Dennis look through paperwork they've collected throughout the years while living in the United States on E2 visas. Their son Mark, 19, will have to return to England, where he lived until he was 4 months old, at age 21 to establish ties there before returning to America on another visa if current rules are not changed.
John F. Russell

Alison, left, Martin, right, and Matthew Dennis have collected a mountain of paperwork while living in the United States on E2 visas. The family’s 19-year-old son Mark, who is currently at the University of Colorado, may have to return to England — where he lived until he was 4 months old — at age 21 to establish ties there before returning to America on another visa if current rules are not changed.John F. Russell

— A Congressional battle bre­­wing in Washington, D.C., this week is raising the hopes of a Steamboat Springs family seeking a change to the nation's immigration policies.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced last week his intentions for Senate debate, potentially Tuesday, on the fiscal year 2011 national defense authorization bill. Along with hundreds of billions of dollars in national security and defense spending, the bill includes two controversial provisions: a repeal of "don't ask, don't tell" policies that prohibit openly gay people from serving in the military, and the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, which would provide a path to legal residency for children who were brought to the country illegally but graduate high school and either attend college or serve in the military.

Alison and Martin Dennis are hoping passage of the DREAM Act will provide a step toward continued legal residency for their son Mark Dennis, 19. He's a 2009 Steamboat Springs High School graduate who's lived in Steamboat nearly his entire life but under current law would have to return to England — where he lived his first four months — at the age of 21.

That would be just before Mark's senior year at the University of Colorado in Boul­­der. He's currently a sophomore there, studying geology.

If Mark were to return to England, current law states he would have to develop strong ties there — through property ownership or employment, for example — before a potential return to CU on an international student visa, with tuition that's vastly more expensive than in-state rates. Alison and Martin Dennis said that while the family occasionally visits England, Mark is unfamiliar with the country. To him, Alison Dennis said, home always has been Steamboat.

She knows legislative help for Mark is a long shot.

Not only is the DREAM Act a political fire-starter that's been unsuccessfully floated in Congress numerous times since 2001, but it's also now tied to "don't ask, don't tell" policies in a midterm election year in which Democrats and Republicans are struggling for control of the House and Senate in November, meaning every vote and bill is viewed under a high-intensity microscope.

Reid's inclusion of the DREAM Act in the defense authorization bill itself has spurred heated debate about political motivations.

But perhaps most importantly for the Dennis family, DREAM Act language applies only to undocumented young people. Mark Dennis is documented and here legally, under his parents' E2 treaty investor visa — until he turns 21.

Alison Dennis said Sunday that despite conversations with lawyers, she doesn't have a definite answer as to whether passage of the DREAM Act would help Mark's cause.

"Until the bill comes out, no one can actually give me an answer," she said. "It just says 'undocumented,' and Mark is documented."

She joked that one solution could be letting Mark's documents "go out of date" — but she quickly retracted that statement.

"We would never put Mark on the wrong side of the law by letting him go out of status," she said. "We would have to fight through our lawyer to have him accepted."

Costs to stay home

That's a fight the Dennis family has been waging in various forms for the past 19 years.

Alison and Martin Dennis moved to Steamboat Springs in October 1991, just a few months after Mark was born in their native England. They've owned the Carpets Plus store on Pine Grove Road since 1997 and also own the Sleepy Bear mobile home park on the city's west side. Their younger son, Matthew Dennis, 17, was born in the U.S. and is a legal resident.

Last week at their home on Sky Valley Drive, off U.S. Highway 40 on Rabbit Ears Pass, Alison Dennis flipped through a thick binder of documents related to their visa renewals and their work seeking a change in policy for Mark.

"We've spent a minimum of $60,000 over the past 20 years to keep us legal here," she said, referring to expenses including visa renewals every five years.

Martin Dennis said their last renewal cost about $10,000.

The DREAM Act debate is fueling rallies, support and opposition across Colorado and the nation. Alison Dennis is traveling to Denver today to attend a rally in support of the legislation. The event at North High School is organized by groups including the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.

She and Martin Dennis acknowledged that their family's situation is relatively fortunate when compared to the struggles of many families supporting the DREAM Act — current law requires the country's estimated 2 million undocumented young people to leave the country at age 18. And Mark, unlike many, would be returning to a country where he speaks the primary language.

But the situation, nonetheless, has the family in a bind.

"He's a kid without a country," Martin Dennis said about his eldest son. "He can't go home, and he can't stay here."