Young illegal immigrants coming out of the shadows

By Helen O'neill

Associated Press

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

Disgusted by its failure in 2007, Abdollahi and others began organizing small "coming out" events in safe areas, like college campuses. The first big "Coming Out of the Shadows" rally was in Chicago in March 2010. The movement quickly gathered strength, with young people actively fighting and publicizing deportation cases, organizing rallies across the country, and getting arrested for acts of civil disobedience.

Abdollahi's first arrest came in May 2010 at a sit-in at the Tucson, Ariz., office of Republican Senator John McCain. McCain, who co-sponsored the DREAM Act in 2007, angered immigrant youth by backing off during the 2008 election, saying he would not support it without tighter border controls.

Abdollahi spent the night at the Pima County jail before being transferred to an ICE processing facility. There, he says, he was locked in a room with about 20 men who had been rounded up in an ICE raid. They were shackled and led to a van to be deported. The "privileged undocumented students" Abdollahi says, were freed.

It was a lesson the movement took to heart. Over and over, when young activists band together — with lawyers lined up and plenty of media coverage — they are let go. They are winning some powerful support. There is now well-connected network of immigration lawyers, educators and other professionals offering services for free. And last summer, at a boisterous "coming out" rally in Atlanta, civil rights veteran Rep. John Lewis of Georgia chanted "undocumented and unafraid" and told a cheering throng of young people that he was prepared to be arrested with them.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement issues a standard statement after such arrests and rallies, saying its new approach to enforcement "includes targeting criminal aliens and those who put public safety at risk, as well as those who threaten border security and the integrity of the immigration system." The new ICE policy also calls for agents to consider how long someone has been in the country and whether that person's spouse or children are U.S. citizens. Regardless of the policy, even critics acknowledge it's simply not feasible to deport all young people who were brought to the country illegally.

According to the nonpartisan American Immigration Council, an estimated 2.1 million young people might qualify for legal status under the DREAM Act. About 65,000 such students graduate from American high schools every year.

States vary widely in how they treat them. Thirteen allow them to qualify for in-state tuition rates. And three — Texas, New Mexico and California — allow them to receive government tuition aid.

But only a federal law can grant green cards, so even those who manage to graduate find themselves stuck: qualified lawyers, engineers and teachers who can only work menial jobs, in the shadows, like their parents.

"I have attended private and public American schools, read American authors, was taught by American teachers, speak with an American accent, passionately debate American politics and use American idioms and expressions," says Alaa Mukahhal. "I am a Muslim, an Arab, a Palestinian and an American."

Mukahhal, 25, crashed headfirst into what she calls the "invisible wall" after graduating from the University of Illinois with a degree in architecture. Born in Kuwait of Palestinian parents who brought her to Chicago at the age of 6, Mukahhal only realized the implications of her status when she started applying for jobs. She considers herself luckier than others: Illinois allows in-state tuition for non-citizen students. But Mukahhal cannot work in her field, because she doesn't have a Social Security number or a work permit.

"My life was at a standstill," says Mukahhal, who despairs when she hears the anti-immigrant rhetoric of those who say she should come into the country "the right way" or "get in line." ''People don't understand," she says. "There is no line for someone like me".

Critics say any path to citizenship for young people like Mukahhal is an amnesty, one that rewards and encourages the illegal behavior of their parents, and drains state and federally funded financial aid programs.

"It's amnesty for up to 2 million people," Rep. Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican said last year referring to the DREAM Act during a discussion on immigration reform. Smith called it "an open invitation to fraud."

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