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.
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."
"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.
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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.