Young illegal immigrants coming out of the shadows

By Helen O'neill

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, May 19 2012 2:45 p.m. MDT

In this Friday, March 16, 2012 photo, New York residents Coraima Veliz and Rafael Benitez embrace during a "Coming Out of the Shadows" rally in Union Square in New York. Benitez's father brimmed with pride as he watched the 16-year-old tell the crowd that he was "undocumented, unafraid and unapologetic." Benitez had never seen his quiet, reserved boy, who hopes to study engineering, so animated or so sure. "Our generation, we were cowards," says Alejandro Benitez, who left Mexico when Rafael was 6. Rafael's 17-year-old girlfriend, Coraima, whose family is Honduran, was watching, too. Rafael first "came out" to her a few months earlier, in a tearful, shameful confession, afraid she would break up with him once she heard that he was "illegal" - a word he never uses now. She hugged him tight. "There is nothing to be ashamed of," said the American-born Veliz. "It is not wrong. I know. My parents are undocumented too."

Mary Altaffer, Associated Press

It began several years ago, tentatively, almost furtively, with a few small rallies and a few provocative T-shirts. In the past two years it has grown into a full-fledged movement, emboldening thousands of young people, terrifying their parents, and unsettling authorities unsure of how to respond.

From California to New York, children of families who live here illegally are "coming out" — marching behind banners that say "undocumented and unafraid," staging sit-ins in federal offices, and getting arrested outside federal immigration courts and detention centers, even in Maricopa County, Ariz., home of the sworn enemy of illegal immigrants, Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

In "outing" their families as well as themselves, they know they risk being deported. But as states pass ever more stringent anti-illegal immigration laws — and critics denounce their parents as criminals — these young people say they have no choice. Even critics sympathetic to their cause say that it's too costly to provide public services to non-citizens and that offering them a path to citizenship rewards their parents' lawbreaking.

Still, more and more young people are asserting their right to stay.

"Coming out was like a weight was lifted," says Angy Rivera, a 21-year-old New Yorker, who was born in Colombia and came here with her mother when she was 3. "I wasn't lying about my life anymore."

Growing up in Queens, Rivera's mother told her to trust no one, to stay away from people in authority, to never mention her immigration status. But it wasn't until Rivera started looking for jobs and applying to college that she fully understood how different she was. She couldn't work without a Social Security number. And, as a non-citizen, she wasn't eligible for financial aid, despite top grades.

She would look at her three younger siblings — all citizens because they were born here — and weep. Unlike her, they didn't have to worry about college, jobs, driving, traveling, planning a future.

Rivera is active in the New York State Youth Leadership Council, which offers training sessions on "coming out," lobbies lawmakers in Albany, and has an impressive website packed with information and practical advice. It is one of many such organizations that have sprung up across the country, focused on helping youth, fighting deportations, and educating the public about the kind of stateless limbo in which they feel trapped.

Recently they have begun escalating their protests, testing the Obama administration's professed new policy of "prosecutorial discretion," designed to focus on the deportation of known criminals, not students or immigrants with no criminal record.

"When we challenge the system, the system doesn't know what to do with us," says Mohammad Abdollahi, a member of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance. Abdollahi, 26, who came from Iran at the age of 3 and grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., has a powerful personal story. As a gay man, he cannot return to a country where homosexuality is a crime punishable by imprisonment or even death — a fact he says he uses to good effect whenever he is threatened with deportation.

Abdollahi laughs when he recalls the early days of the movement in 2006 and 2007 — the furtive online conversations with other anonymous youth, afraid that if their identity was exposed immigration agents would come crashing through their doors.

Back then, the movement was focused mainly on the DREAM Act, which would allow a path to citizenship for some youth who graduated from high school and spent two years in college or in the military. The act has failed several times.

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