Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

Former University of Maryland student Tochukwu Ibe-Ekeocha does not fit the conservative stereotype of an “illegal” immigrant. He immigrated from Nigeria when he was 12, believing he was simply on a family vacation. But then his father returned to Nigeria only a few weeks after arriving. His mother left a month later, leaving Ibe-Ekeocha and his younger brother in the United States with their uncle. Ibe-Ekeocha didn’t know he was undocumented until he applied to college. Now he’s under threat of an inhumane deportation.

The controversy surrounding undocumented immigrants this year has largely focused on the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. But preserving DACA alone would scarcely begin to fix the U.S. immigration problems. Ibe-Ekeocha and his little brother don’t qualify for DACA because they arrived after June 15, 2007. Their situation is troubling because, even under the Obama administration, their residence would’ve been considered illegal.

[Read more: A former UMD student facing deportation has raised over $3,800 for legal fees]

Cases like this one reveal a cumbersome and callous system. Current immigration policy is too strict and unresponsive to provide urgent help to those in need. At the same time, it punishes and demonizes people brave enough to take matters into their own hands. The U.S. immigration system is complicit in countless tragedies on a global scale.

Ibe-Ekeocha’s family are Igbo Christians, a group embroiled in decades-old ethnic tension in Nigeria. His parents worried that Boko Haram would target them because of their religion. For this reason, it’s possible that legal immigration wasn’t an option. Even if Ibe-Ekeocha’s family qualified for refugee resettlement, the process would be slow and rigorous, lasting up to two years.

Expecting refugees to wait this long while fearing for their lives is unreasonable and inhumane. For the most urgent cases, the U.S. system offers nothing but tangling bureaucracy and a potentially deadly waitlist. It’s next to useless for people in immediate danger.

Ibe-Ekeocha’s parents’ fears were not unfounded. They were kidnapped after returning to Nigeria. Ibe-Ekeocha only learned this year that they had been returned from their captors.

The actions his parents took to secure a better life for their children should not be regarded as criminal. They were heroic. Traveling almost a quarter of the way around the world in search of a better life takes uncommon bravery. It’s the embodiment of the fearless ideals many Americans cherish. But our immigration system doesn’t reflect those ideals. Rather than a welcoming beacon, it’s a heartless, bureaucratic monster. Ibe-Ekeocha’s parents stood up to an unjust system, and their sons might have to pay for it.

One of the main conservative arguments against undocumented immigrants is that they break the law just by being in the United States. But people like Ibe-Ekeocha can’t be blamed for defying a law that’s clearly immoral. The law is problematic, not the people it mistreats.

Ibe-Ekeocha’s deportation hearing is later this month. If he and his brother receive special immigrant juvenile status, they will be allowed to stay in the country legally. There are many undocumented immigrants in similar positions. Not all of them will be lucky enough to avoid deportation. Many will be sent back to the dangerous conditions they came here to escape.

The immigration system needlessly punishes people whose positions are too precarious for them to wait for legal entrance. U.S. immigration policy should be based first and foremost on compassion and respect for human dignity, not an unwavering commitment to the rules.

Nate Rogers is a freshman computer science major. He can be reached at