updated 7/21/2005 9:24:09 PM ET 2005-07-22T01:24:09

A judge on Thursday threw out the deportation case against four young people who were taking part in a high school science competition near the Canadian border when the government found out that the students were brought to the U.S. illegally as toddlers.

U.S. Immigration Judge John Richardson granted a request from the four to exclude key evidence in the case, ruling that agents questioned the students based on their Hispanic appearance.

Tim Counts, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement said no decision has been made yet on whether to appeal.

Jaime Damian, 20, Yuliana Huicochea, 20, Oscar Corona, 20, and Luis Nava, 21, were on a school trip in June 2002 to compete in a solar-powered boat competition near Buffalo, N.Y., when they drew the attention of immigration officials.

The students wanted to make a side trip to Niagara Falls in Canada. Federal agents looked into their immigration status after a teacher asked whether the students would be allowed to return to the United States with only their student IDs.

All have finished high school, and three of them are either enrolled or have completed college.

Aggressive questioning, racial slurs alleged
During their attempt to cross the border, the students said they faced aggressive questioning about their identification, country of birth and when they were brought into the country. Three of the students testified that border officials made racially offensive comments in their presence.

A female border supervisor, whose name none of the students remembered and who was not identified in court, had said the students may blend in in Hispanic-heavy Arizona but not in Buffalo, the three testified.

Two of the students also testified that a border agent suggested he might go get some Mexican food, prompting a smirk from another officer.

Nava said he interpreted the statement as a comment on the Mexican heritage of the students. “It was offensive,” Nava said. “I cannot believe he said that.”

Martin Mahady, then a border inspector, said he did not hear anyone making racially derogatory comments in the presence of the students.

‘Don’t send your illegals to New York’
Jane Juliano, principal of the high school the four attended, said a female border official said she could send the four to Mexico immediately unless the school sent the students’ birth certificates.

“She said, ‘Don’t send your illegals to New York,”’ Juliano said, explaining that the comment came up as she tried to emphasize that the students were on a field trip and should be protected.

An estimated 65,000 illegal immigrants who have lived in the United States for at least five years graduate from high school each year, according to the Urban Institute, an economic and social policy research group.

Advocates for immigrants say it is rare for students who aren’t legal citizens to undergo deportation proceedings after spending most of their lives here. They say Congress should approve a proposal to give children of illegal immigrants the chance to become U.S. citizens.

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