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Spenser Heaps, Deseret News
Hector Virgen, center, joins others at a rally to show support for undocumented immigrants and call for immigration reform in Salt Lake City on Saturday, March 17, 2018.

SALT LAKE CITY — Shouting chants like, "Say it loud, say it clear, refugees are welcome here!" and "Up, up with immigration — down, down with deportation!" hundreds of students and pro-immigration advocates braved the cold and wet snow on Saturday morning to voice their support for the scores of Utah residents in immigration limbo.

Gathering at Presidents Circle on the University of Utah campus, the group staged a walking demonstration to highlight "the authentic reality" of undocumented community members in Utah and the need for change, explained Amy Dominguez, event co-organizer with Unidad Inmigrante.

"We want to bring attention back to the fact there are undocumented communities still at risk," she said. "Deportations are still imminent and this community is still facing risks that a lot of the public doesn't understand."

She noted that immigrants in various plights of undocumented status are all over the state, and each individual deserves to be treated with compassion and humanity rather than being forced to leave the U.S. just because of their immigration standing.

"A lot of time, these community members have been here a long, long time doing their best and contributing to society," she said. "They deserve to be recognized and they deserve to stay."

She advocated for policy changes that would give undocumented individuals the opportunity to progress to citizenship without the constant threat of deportation hanging over their heads.

"People are afraid!" Dominguez said. "With (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) perched and waiting for them. It's a very scary time."

Noting that the method for naturalized citizenship is prolonged and costly, undocumented people are often unable to marshal the resources necessary to complete the traditional process, she said.

"It is extremely expensive to have to hire a lawyer to file the paperwork you have to pay for on top of paying for a lawyer," she said. "This is an 'undocumented reality' (that) people don't understand ... what it takes to become legalized."

She implored Congress to develop policies that give undocumented people a legitimate chance to become citizens.

"Something comprehensive needs to happen so that we can acknowledge the undocumented community members that live here," Dominguez said.

The march traveled from Presidents Circle to First Unitarian Church in Salt Lake City, which has become a "sanctuary" for Honduran immigrant Vicky Chavez and her two children who arrived in January. The church has been a refuge for the family while an application for asylum in the U.S. is working its way through the legal system.

Assistant Minister Monica Dobbins said the immigration issue is complex, but the country should be able to figure out a way to provide citizenship opportunities for deserving people who want to move to America.

"For many people, there are not currently legal paths to get into the United States and there should be," she said. "We want to make sure that families can stay together because it is so important for children and for parents to be united as one family."

Noting the exceptionally complicated nature of the entire immigration dilemma, Rev. Dobbins said any potential solution "should start from a place of compassion."

"From understanding our history, this (current debate) is just the latest in 200 to 300 years of excluding people from immigration, excluding people from citizenship," she said. "At some point, we have to put a stop to it and say, 'We want people to be a part of our country and we welcome the diversity that immigrants bring to our nation. We think it makes the nation stronger, healthier and a happier place to live.'"

Regarding the Vicky Chavez asylum case, she said her church is doing what is necessary to support family unity by providing sanctuary as the case goes through the court process.

"Part of what we're doing is really trying to keep this family together," Rev. Dobbins said. "(We'll provide help) for as long as it takes. We're in it for the long haul."

Meanwhile, the rally featured a number of speakers, including "Dreamer" Ciriac Alvarez, 20, an undocumented immigrant who came to the U.S. from Mexico with her parents when she was 5 years old. She said her status has been an issue for her for as long as she could remember.

"My parents always told us not to tell people where you came from and to not talk about our family too much," she explained. "There was a lot of worry about what could happen to you and the rest of your family."

Despite living with the constant anxiety of possible deportation, Alvarez was able to matriculate through school and eventually earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Utah. For all intents and purposes, she considers herself to be an American and wishes there was a way to make that a reality, she said.

"There should be a permanent solution like the DREAM Act, legislation that would allow a pathway to citizenship for almost 3.5 million of us, so young people like me who grew up here and have lived our lives can be a part of these communities," she explained. The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act is a proposal that would grant qualified undocumented minors in the U.S. conditional residency, with the opportunity for permanent status upon meeting further requirements.

"We should also include people like Vicky Chavez, people like my parents, like my family members who have been here over 10 years — some for decades," Alvarez added. "It's important that when we highlight people like me, who've had the opportunity to go to school here and graduate from high school and from college. (We should) also highlight people like Vicky who want that same opportunity for her daughters and her family members."

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During her comments to the crowd gathered in the courtyard of the church, she described herself as "undocumented and unafraid." While she admitted there was some hyperbole in those words, there was also a great deal of truth.

"I'm unafraid to share my story. I'm willing to stand up and be courageous and share that I am undocumented to allow people to understand that we're all over (Utah)," Alvarez said. "I want to be able to say it so other people just like me can be unafraid and share their story."