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

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2010; A03

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.

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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