Young illegal immigrants coming out of the shadows

By Helen O'neill

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, May 19 2012 12:00 a.m. MDT

"People say, go back to your country, but where are we supposed to go?" asks Tereza Lee, who was born in Brazil of Korean parents, who brought her to Chicago when she was 2.

Lee, now 29, was one of the first "dreamers." A gifted musician, she was accepted into major music colleges around the country, including Julliard. But she couldn't attend without financial aid, which she wasn't entitled to because of her status. Tearfully, Lee, then 18, "came out" for the first time — to her music teacher — who was so struck by her student's plight she called the office of Sen. Richard Durbin, a Democrat from Illinois.

It was Lee's story that inspired Durbin to introduce the first version of DREAM Act in 2001.

But many in the movement say it's not just star students who deserve the right to stay. By her own admission, Keish Kim, of Roswell, Ga., who came from Korea when she was 8, is a good student, not a straight-A one. But, the 20-year-old says students with more modest grades deserve a chance, too.

"I just want to be in a stable educational environment, where I can learn," Kim told the Georgia Board of Regents last November asking it to rescind a new policy that effectively bans those in the country illegally from the state's top five universities and colleges.

To her great joy, she is finally getting that chance — at an "underground" university where the students meet in secret and study a rigorous, though uncredited, course taught by Georgia professors. They have named their school "Freedom University" after the freedom schools for blacks in the South during segregation.

Still, Kim says, the fear never goes away, nor the unnerving sense that some people consider her a criminal.

That sense of criminalization was what drove 17-year-old Diane Martell of Bessemer, Ala., to get arrested last fall after the passage of the nation's harshest anti-illegal immigration law, one designed to make life so unbearable for people like her parents, that they would voluntarily "self deport."

"It was like people just shut down," Martell said.

So the shy, bookish high school student did something she would have considered unimaginable a year ago. She joined a group of out-of-state youth activists who flocked to the Alabama state Capitol. She sat down and blocked traffic, knowing she would be arrested, knowing she risked being deported to Mexico, a country her parents paid a "coyote" to smuggle them out of when she was 11.

"We are human beings," Martell says. "We are not criminals, and we are not aliens and we cannot just stay silent."

Martell's father says she is "very brave." Other parents, horrified by actions they view as self-destructive, have bitter, tearful confrontations with their children.

Nineteen-year-old Dulce Guerrero came home after being arrested at a rally in Atlanta last year to find her father weeping and her mother angrier than she had ever been in her life. Mohammad Abdollahi said he simply doesn't discuss his activism with his parents, because they would find it shameful. Alaa Mukahhal says as much as she admires those who get arrested for the cause, she will not go that far because it would be too painful for her mother.

But others describe a growing understanding on the part of their parents, a sense that their children's fight is theirs, too.

In New York last March Alejandro Benitez brimmed with pride as he watched his shy, reserved 16-year-old son tell a rally at Union Square that he was "undocumented, unafraid and unapologetic."

"Our generation, we were cowards," says Benitez, who left Mexico when Rafael was 6. "These young people, they are fighters."

Helen O'Neill is a New York-based national writer for The Associated Press. She can be reached at features(at)ap.org.

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