Students disclose illegal status as part of push for immigration law reform

Undocumented students from around the country demand the passage of the Dream Act outside the White House, despite the threat of arrests and deportation.
By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2010

On a patch of asphalt outside the White House this week, Renata Teodoro, Maricela Aguilar and scores of other students are risking deportation simply by sharing their full names and immigration status with anyone who asks.

In an act of defiance unimaginable to many in their parents' generation, they are publicly declaring that they are in the United States illegally as a way to push for change that would help thousands of undocumented young people like them. And they are doing so in one of the most highly patrolled -- and politicized -- spots in the country.

"I'm not going to lie and say that I'm not afraid of someone coming in and trying to arrest me, but I can't let that fear take over my life," said Teodoro, 22, a student at the University of Massachusetts in Boston whose parents were deported back to Brazil a couple of years ago. "The only way of people finding out about my situation is to tell my story."

She and other undocumented high school and college students and graduates have been streaming into Washington this week to demand passage of the Dream Act, legislation that would give unauthorized young immigrants a path to legal residency if they contribute to the country by serving in the military or getting a college education.

Most of the students have lived in the United States from a young age and consider themselves Americans. They are attending "classes" at what organizers have dubbed the "Dream University," meeting with legislators, and, in a notable shift from previous years, giving out their full names and personal histories.

On Tuesday, almost two dozen activists went one step further, staging sit-ins inside the Senate Hart Office Building that resulted in 21 arrests for disorderly conduct. Those charged could be referred to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, although it is not a given that they would face deportation as a result.

"We don't necessarily take action on everyone who is referred to us," said Gillian Brigham, a spokeswoman for ICE.

Losing the fear

The willingness of these young people to confront authorities in Washington and elsewhere is a far cry from the approach of most illegal immigrants, who are usually anxious to avoid calling attention to themselves. Many are deeply worried about the passage of a controversial law in Arizona that will give police the power to question people they suspect of being illegal immigrants. Other states are considering similar measures.

"It is a bit of a surprise to see how bold and open a lot of the young people are about their status, and that's changed from the past," said Margie McHugh, co-director of the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute's National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, who said it was unclear what the consequences for them could be.

The students typically come from families that have strived to stay off the radar of immigration authorities. Sometimes they do not even tell their children that they are here illegally, hoping that they will absorb the confidence and ambition of their American friends and neighbors.

Many have done just that, and increasingly are acting like typical American college students: openly embracing a cause they believe in.

"I think there's an empowerment that comes with giving your name," said Aguilar, 19, a political science and English major at Marquette University in Milwaukee who calls herself a Midwesterner and has the accent to prove it.

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