Balderas was only 4 years old when he became an illegal immigrant. But his youth proved no defense when immigration officials arrested the biology major at the San Antonio airport after he tried to board a plane back to Boston without a passport.
"They just kept [asking] me if I had any other documents, that they were just trying to help me so that I can get on the plane," he told The Boston Globe. "But at that point I realized there was nothing that I could do, that anybody could do."
Balderas was on his way back to Harvard last week after a visit to his mother in San Antonio, where he grew up. But sometime during the visit, Balderas lost his Mexican passport and had hoped to board the plane with a consulate card and his student ID.
But that day, luck was not on his side. Balderas was fingerprinted, put in handcuffs and detained for five hours. Finally, authorities let him go, but not without a court date. On July 6, the student has a date with an immigration judge for his first hearing. Balderas, who has a full ride to Harvard, could be deported.
In 2008 alone, the United States deported 369,221 people to their home countries, many of them to Mexico. But Balderas' case is sure to be more high profile than most.
It helps that he has a success story. Balderas says he crossed the border with his mother, who wanted to escape an abusive relationship and give her children a shot at a better life. He told The Globe that his mother worked 12 hours each day packaging biscuits to support the family.
By all measures, Balderas took the opportunity and ran with it. He was valedictorian of his high school and won a full scholarship to Harvard despite his undocumented status. At Harvard, he is studying molecular biology and wants to research cures for cancer.
"I honestly never thought I'd make it into college because of my status, but I just really enjoyed school too much and I gave it a shot,'' he said. "I did strive for this.''
Already, Harvard administrators have expressed public support for Balderas to remain in the United Stated. The university is using his case to push for the adoption of the DREAM Act, federal legislation that would provide a path to citizenship for immigrants who entered the country illegally when they were younger than 16.
"Eric Balderas has already demonstrated the discipline and work ethic required for rigorous university work and has, like so many of our undergraduates, expressed an interest in making a difference in the world,'' Harvard spokeswoman Christine Heenan told The Globe.
"These dedicated young people are vital to our nation's future, and President Faust's support of the DREAM Act reflects Harvard's commitment to access and opportunity for students like Eric."
Last year, Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust urged Congress to support the act, along with the heads of other prominent universities.
So far, immigration authorities haven't spoken publicly about the Balderas case. A call for comment this morning to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement was not immediately returned. Immigration proceedings are handled on a case-by-case basis.
Balderas' story is likely to intensify the debate over how to deal with cases of illegal immigrants who entered the United States as children.
Mario Rodas, Balderas' Harvard classmate and an immigration activist, said Balderas is proof that such people deserve legal residency.
"He's like an American, but without documents,'' Rodas told The Globe. "These are the kind of people we need in this country, doing research for cancer.''
Rodas created a Facebook page, "Keep Eric Home," to help rally support for Balderas. So far, the page has more than 600 fans.
Balderas' roommate, David Pickerell, wrote a statement to Harvard's college newspaper declaring that Balderas should be allowed to stay.
"He should be allowed to continue his studies at Harvard, as his abilities will one day contribute back to the United States," he wrote in an e-mail to The Harvard Crimson. "He is one of the best minds in this country, his credentials speak for themselves, and we should nurture such talent."
Balderas said he fears the worst. "I'm very worried, to be honest," he told The Globe. "I'm willing to fight this, of course. I'm just hanging in there."