She was tiny and trembling and looked so very vulnerable. Barely 15, having already experienced a lifetime of hardships since losing her mother at 5 and crossing the desert with her father, she clutched a microphone before a crowd in New York’s Union Square.
“My name is Diana,” she said. “I am undocumented and unafraid.”
With those words last March, another young woman stepped “out of the shadows.”
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 Georgia 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 in the most defiant ways — in front of the Alabama Capitol, outside federal immigration courts and detention centers, 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 who are sympathetic to their cause say the federal government has failed to secure the U.S. borders and that it’s too costly to provide schooling, hospital care and other public services to non-citizens. Offering a path to citizenship for those brought into the country illegally as children, they say, simply rewards the parents’ law-breaking.
Still, more young people are publicly “coming out” and asserting their right to stay.
They include Mandeep Chahal, a 21-year-old medical student who came to California from India when she was 6. Cesar Andrade, a 19-year old student and tennis coach in New York City who came from Ecuador when he was 8. And Heyra Avila, a feisty 16-year-old from Florence, Ky., whose Mexican parents considered putting her up for adoption so she could become legal.
They are American in every way except on paper, they say. Why should they be branded, judged and punished?
“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. “It was liberating. I wasn’t lying about my life anymore.”
While Rivera was growing up in Queens, her 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 struggled to find scholarships and grants, winning one with a poignant poem about her dilemma titled “Unidentified Identity”.
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 for undocumented youth on everything from health care and college applications to dating. 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.
“Oh my God, what are you doing? Are you trying to get us deported?” Rivera’s mother cried after her daughter marched outside the Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in downtown New York in 2010. Rivera was scared, too. But, like others, she has found comfort in community and safety in numbers — along with a growing sense of a need to take bigger risks in order to force change.
And so they are 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 who has traveled around the country, organizing some of the boldest protests to date.
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.
Today 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.
“I was scared to use my real name, even in emails,” he said.
Back then, the movement was focused mainly on the DREAM Act, which would allow a path to citizenship for some undocumented 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 decided it was time for more radical action. They organized 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 annual “coming out” rallies across the country, and — taking cues from the civil rights movement — getting arrested for acts of civil disobedience.
Abdollahi’s first arrest came in May 2010 at the Tucson, Ariz., office of Republican Senator John McCain. Abdollahi and four other student activists, dressed in royal blue graduation gowns and caps, sat down in the reception area under an American flag and refused to leave. It was the movement’s first act of civil disobedience.
McCain, who co-sponsored the DREAM Act in 2007, angered undocumented 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 undocumented men who had been rounded up in an ICE raid. They were shackled and led to a van to be driven to the border and deported. The “privileged undocumented students” Abdollahi says, were freed.
It was a lesson the movement took to heart. Over and over, when young undocumented 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 their 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 get arrested with them.
“The jails of Georgia, the jails of America are not large enough to hold all of us,” Lewis thundered.
ICE 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, adopted a year ago, 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 change, even critics acknowledge it’s simply not feasible to deport all undocumented youth. 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 undocumented students graduate from American high schools every year.
States vary widely in how they treat them. Thirteen allow the undocumented 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 give undocumented youth 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 undocumented parents.
“I breathe American air, travel on American roads, eat American food, listen to American radio, watch American TV, dress in American clothing,” says Alaa Mukahhal. “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. A piece of paper cannot define me. I am a Muslim, an Arab, a Palestinian and an American.”
Mukahhal, 25, crashed headfirst into what she calls the “invisible wall” of the undocumented 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 undocumented 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,” Mukahhal says. “My mind was withering. It is like being stuck in time, except I’m still aging.”
Mukahhal, despairs when she hears the anti-immigrant rhetoric of politicians and others, who tell her to come into the country “the right way” or “get in line.”
“People don’t understand,” says Mukahhal, who applied for asylum in the hope that an immigration judge will understand her situation. “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. “This IS our home, the one we pledged allegiance to every morning before school.”
Lee, now 29, holds a kind of iconic status among “dreamers”, because, in a sense, she was the first to go public.
A gifted musician, Lee 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.
“We need to be doing all we can to keep these talented, dedicated, American students here,” Durbin said, “not wasting increasingly precious resources sending them away to countries they barely remember.”
But many in the movement say it’s not just star students who deserve the right to stay, but any young person who has grown up here, even those who don’t go to college.
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 and ambitions deserve a chance, too.
Wearing a scarlet U — for undocumented — Kim gave tearful speech before the Georgia Board of Regents last November asking it to rescind a new policy that effectively bans undocumented students from the state’s top five universities and colleges. They can attend other public colleges only if they pay out-of-state tuition.
“I just want to be in a stable educational environment, where I can learn,” Kim said.
To her great joy, she is finally getting that chance — at an “underground” university set up by educators and community activists after the Georgia policy was passed. The students, all undocumented, meet in a secret location on Sundays, and study a rigorous — though uncredited — course taught by Georgia professors. They have named their school “Freedom University” after the freedom schools set up for blacks in the South during segregation.
Though being back in class has given her a renewed sense of confidence and purpose, Kim says her fears remain very real. She doesn’t dare drive, afraid that if she is stopped in one of the counties participating in the “secure communities” program — which allows local police to check a person’s immigration status — she could be deported. And since she went public, she has learned that some of her former teachers and friends consider her a criminal.
Anger at that sense of criminalization is a powerful force fueling the movement — and attracting new recruits. It 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 undocumented immigrants, like her parents, they would voluntarily “self deport.”
“It was like people just shut down,” Martell said. “They didn’t go out any more. It was like they were not human beings.”
So the shy, bookish high school student, who dreams of studying medicine, 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.
She is very brave, her father said in Spanish.
But Martell, who was charged with disorderly conduct and released after a few hours, doesn’t feel brave. She feels empowered. She says she is tired of watching the fear in her father’s face every time he drives, tired of her mother begging her not to walk to school on the days the ICE van is parked down the street, tired of all the limits on her life.
“We are human beings,” Martell says. “We are not criminals, and we are not aliens and we cannot just stay silent.”
In Sanford, N.C., Cynthia Martinez felt such rage at a system so stacked against her, she bought a one-way ticket to Mexico, in the hope that, somehow she would find a legal way to return to the only home she has ever known.
North Carolina does not allow in-state tuition for undocumented students, meaning they must pay prohibitive out-of-state rates.” Why should I have to pay four times as much tuition, and register only after everyone else,” asks Martinez, 21, who came from Mexico at 2. “It’s Jim Crow, back of the bus treatment.”
“If you are going, why not go with a bang,” said her older sister, Viridiana, who is active in the movement. And so in March, wearing her “undocumented and unafraid” T-shirt, Martinez joined a group of activists who marched into a state legislative committee hearing on immigration. After listening to Republican State Rep. George Cleveland condemn “illegal aliens” as criminals and drug dealers, capable of little more than manual labor, Martinez stood up.
“I’m one of those criminals you are talking about,” she cried. As she was hustled out and handcuffed, crying “I’m a North Carolinian,” several committee members yelled “go home.”
Martinez went home — to Sanford — where something unexpected happened. In her small hometown where she and her family had spent their lives trying to hide their status, often lying, neighbors approached her in the grocery store and at the fast food restaurant where she worked. They told her they hadn’t understood how hard it was to be undocumented. They praised her courage and offered support.
It’s one thing for strangers to embrace the movement. It is far more difficult for immigrant parents. Horrified by actions they view as self-destructive, many 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. When Diane Martell was arrested in front of the Alabama capitol in March, her father was in the crowd. In Duluth, Ga., Nayeli Quezada, a 21-year-old Freedom University student, said that her activism had emboldened her undocumented parents to “come out” as well.
And in New York Alejandro Benitez accompanied his son, Rafael, to a “coming out” rally in March. The father brimmed with pride as he watched the 16-year-old tell the crowd at Union Square 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 Benitez, who left Mexico when Rafael was 6. “These young people, they are fighters.”
Rafael’s 17-year-old girlfriend, Coraima Veliz, 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.”
Helen O’Neill is a New York-based national writer for The Associated Press. She can be reached at features(at)ap.org.