Former Lake Travis running back Santiago Villegas has charted a different course after immigration authorities denied him a student visa to return to the U.S. from Mexico for his senior year of high school.
Instead of enrolling in a school in his hometown of Toluca, Mexico, Villegas has found a new home — in Canada.
And he may have found a new sport, too.
Villegas said he recently was granted a student visa to attend high school in Courtenay, British Columbia, a city of about 25,000 people on the east coast of Vancouver Island. He has enrolled in an international studies program at Georges Vanier Secondary School, which does not field an American football team.
“I hope to join the rugby team,” Villegas told the American-Statesman on Wednesday.
Villegas, who has never played rugby, would have preferred to return to Lake Travis. After finishing as the Cavaliers’ leading rusher in 2015, when he gained 955 yards and totaled 13 touchdowns, the 5-foot-8-inch, 171-pound Villegas was expected to be a vital player for the 2016 squad.
“It just feels horrible,” Villegas said. “I don’t think I’ll ever be in a better school than Lake Travis.”
Villegas’ plans for his senior year changed after he and his mother, Yasmin Garcia Sanchez, traveled to Toluca in July to visit family members. When U.S. immigration officials declined to renew his mother’s student visa, Villegas was blocked from returning to Austin as well.
They re-applied in August and reached out to the office of U.S. Rep. Roger Williams, R-Austin, for help. Again, their request for student visas was turned down.
“We were hoping Santiago would be able to graduate from Lake Travis,” Garcia Sanchez said.
Villegas said he considered staying in Mexico to finish high school, but some of the credits he earned at Lake Travis would not be accepted at his new school in Toluca. It would have taken him two more years to graduate from high school instead of one, he said.
The Villegas family already has ties to Canada. One of Santiago’s brothers, Jose Luis, lives in Victoria, British Columbia, 130 miles southeast of Courtenay. He’s studying at the University of Victoria after entering Canada on a student visa.
As for Santiago, he lives with a host family in Courtenay. His father, Ricardo, who still resides in Toluca, pays the host family $800 a month for Santiago’s room and board.
Villegas, 18, aspires to return to the United States next year to attend college.
At Lake Travis, Cavaliers football coach Hank Carter shuffled his lineup when he learned Villegas might not return to the team. University of Arkansas pledge Maleek Barkley has filled in admirably, rushing for 360 yards in four games, including a 191-yard effort two weeks ago at Dallas Jesuit.
“We planned for the worst once we got word that he was having issues getting back into the U.S.,” said Carter, whose team is ranked fourth this week in the Associated Press Class 6A state poll.
Villegas, who listens to Cavalier games on the radio, remains loyal to Lake Travis.
“Even though I may never play football again, I hope to go back to Lake Travis again and see my best friends,” he said. “I was really happy living there and I miss my teammates a lot.”