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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.

She and others said their public declarations are a relief from the tension of always hiding. In fact, they hope the tactic will advance their cause and protect them from deportation.

"Our friends and our family are always telling us not to do it," said Francisco Gutierrez, 18, a Georgetown University student who moved to the United States from Mexico when he was 3 and had just started giving out his name. "I tell them we can't be fearful any more. We can't live our lives afraid that there's always something going to happen to us, just because we are undocumented."

Carlos Saavedra, national coordinator of the United We Dream Network, agreed. "We are losing the fear," said Saavedra, whose organization, a coalition of immigrant youth groups, organized many of the events and plans to continue them into August.

He gestured at the 20 or so students sitting in rows, some holding umbrellas in sweltering Lafayette Square. No one in the group -- which included his brother Rodrigo, who is 16 and undocumented -- appeared nervous, although ICE headquarters is not far from the White House.

"They know we're here," Saavedra said, "and we have not seen anything more than park police telling us to move here and move there."

Brigham would not comment specifically on the students outside the White House, but she said ICE puts a priority on deporting illegal immigrants with criminal backgrounds. In the past two years, the percentage of those deported with criminal backgrounds has risen from 31 percent to 50 percent, she said. Of the 227,163 people removed in the first half of this year, 113,453 were identified as criminal aliens.

Meanwhile, an estimated 65,000 illegal immigrants graduate from U.S. high schools each year. Some are able to enroll in college, but they can have difficulty obtaining financial aid because of their status.

Protection via publicity

Although ICE could go after the students, they are making a calculation that publicity, even arrest, can work in their favor, said observers on both side of the immigration issue.

"In a sense, going forward to the media affords protection," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tighter immigration controls. "They're striking a pose of bravado knowing perfectly well that there's absolutely no chance that they're going to be [deported] once they've given an interview to the newspaper."

Immigration activists cite the case of Eric Balderas, a Harvard undergraduate and immigrant from Mexico who was arrested last month for being in the United States illegally. Deportation proceedings against him were halted after extensive publicity and lobbying by Harvard officials and Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).

Deportation has been deferred for others in similar straits after their stories appeared in the news. Brigham said ICE grants deferments on a case-by-case basis.

But not everyone wants to test immigration authorities.

At a "Coming Out" rally in Chicago in March, some students gave only their first names. At a May 1 rally in Washington, several gave their names to reporters but avoided being arrested at a sit-in. In Arizona a few days later, undocumented students staged a protest in front of Republican Sen. John McCain's office. Three were arrested and are in deportation proceedings.

One of them, Mohammad Abdollahi, 24, whose family moved to Michigan from Iran when he was 3, said he is hoping the publicity surrounding his case will lead to a deferment, though he knows that there is no guarantee.

Aguilar, whose family moved to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 3, said she didn't reveal her status for years, even while working as an activist for undocumented students.

"You'd always say everything in the third person," she said. But this year, when activists were planning a series of "coming out" events, she decided it was time to switch to the first person.

Whether giving out their names will help the students achieve their goals remains to be seen.

"I think it's not possible to say yet if it's a safe or an extremely risky thing for them to do," McHugh said. "They are taking a great risk in putting themselves out there so publicly. In the end, they'll be judged to have been quite prescient if the law does end up happening and naïve if it doesn't."

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