Young illegal immigrants coming out of the shadows

In this Tuesday, April 5, 2011 photo, a police officer instructs illegal immigrant Georgina Perez to move or face arrest for blocking traffic with other demonstraotrs in Atlanta during a protest calling for rights for illegal immigrants for higher education. Across the country, children of families who live here illegally are "coming out" publicly. 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. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

In this Tuesday, April 5, 2011 photo, a police officer instructs illegal immigrant Georgina Perez to move or face arrest for blocking traffic with other demonstraotrs in Atlanta during a protest calling for rights for illegal immigrants for higher education. Across the country, children of families who live here illegally are "coming out" publicly. 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. (AP Photo/David Goldman)


In this Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2011 photo, illegal immigrant Keish Kim, 20, left, fights back tears as she speaks before the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia in Atlanta requesting they reverse a policy that effectively bans illegal immigrants from the state's top five colleges and universities. University of Georgia student Juan Carlos Cardoza-Oquendo, 21, is at right. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

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 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 outside federal immigration courts and detention centers, even 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 sympathetic to their cause say that it's too costly to provide public services to non-citizens and that offering them a path to citizenship rewards their parents' lawbreaking.

Still, more and more young people are asserting their right to stay.

"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. "I wasn't lying about my life anymore."

Growing up in Queens, Rivera's 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 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. 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.

Recently they have begun 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. 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.

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.

Back then, the movement was focused mainly on the DREAM Act, which would allow a path to citizenship for some 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 began organizing 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 rallies across the country, and getting arrested for acts of civil disobedience.

Abdollahi's first arrest came in May 2010 at a sit-in at the Tucson, Ariz., office of Republican Senator John McCain. McCain, who co-sponsored the DREAM Act in 2007, angered immigrant 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 men who had been rounded up in an ICE raid. They were shackled and led to a van to be deported. The "privileged undocumented students" Abdollahi says, were freed.

It was a lesson the movement took to heart. Over and over, when young 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 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 be arrested with them.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement 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 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, even critics acknowledge it's simply not feasible to deport all young people who were brought to the country illegally.

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 such students graduate from American high schools every year.

States vary widely in how they treat them. Thirteen allow them 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 grant 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 parents.

"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," says Alaa Mukahhal. "I am a Muslim, an Arab, a Palestinian and an American."

Mukahhal, 25, crashed headfirst into what she calls the "invisible wall" 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 non-citizen 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," says Mukahhal, who despairs when she hears the anti-immigrant rhetoric of those who say she should come into the country "the right way" or "get in line." "People don't understand," she says. "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.

Lee, now 29, was one of the first "dreamers." A gifted musician, she 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.

But many in the movement say it's not just star students who deserve the right to stay. 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 deserve a chance, too.

"I just want to be in a stable educational environment, where I can learn," Kim told the Georgia Board of Regents last November asking it to rescind a new policy that effectively bans those in the country illegally from the state's top five universities and colleges.To her great joy, she is finally getting that chance -- at an "underground" university where the students meet in secret and study a rigorous, though uncredited, course taught by Georgia professors. They have named their school "Freedom University" after the freedom schools for blacks in the South during segregation.

Still, Kim says, the fear never goes away, nor the unnerving sense that some people consider her a criminal.

That sense of criminalization 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 people like her parents, that they would voluntarily "self deport."

"It was like people just shut down," Martell said.

So the shy, bookish high school student 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.

"We are human beings," Martell says. "We are not criminals, and we are not aliens and we cannot just stay silent."

Martell's father says she is "very brave." Other parents, horrified by actions they view as self-destructive, 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.

In New York last March Alejandro Benitez brimmed with pride as he watched his shy, reserved 16-year-old son tell a rally at Union Square that he was "undocumented, unafraid and unapologetic."

"Our generation, we were cowards," says Benitez, who left Mexico when Rafael was 6. "These young people, they are fighters."


Helen O'Neill is a New York-based national writer for The Associated Press. She can be reached at features(at)ap.org.


notblind 2 years, 2 months ago

Until the 14th Amendment is "fixed" we are butting our heads against a wall.


DavidBrown 2 years, 2 months ago

Thank God for the 14th Amendment. I hope it is never repealed.


R 2 years, 2 months ago

"Loss of citizenship: Loss of national citizenship is possible only under the following circumstances:

Fraud in the naturalization process. Technically, this is not loss of citizenship but rather a voiding of the purported naturalization and a declaration that the immigrant never was a United States citizen."

*Seems we just need to ENFORCE the 14th as it is right now for while. The parent knew it was against the law before it happened, the party listed above KNOWS for certain that she doesn't belong here and yet ...

I'm more inclined to help someone that requests /needs help than protesting and telling me in effect to pound sand.

Because if THEY don’t get THIER way it’s already been proven in their actions compliance is out of the question.

We already have a class that thinks like that, it’s called the political class. Do we REALLY need to keep adding to it?

In effect, you can give them your wallet or anything else as they DEMAND or THEY"LL take it -either way, it’s NOT your's to give anymore...


Mack711 2 years, 2 months ago

There is a simple solution to this situation. As these people stand up and defy our laws by annoucing that they are illegal .... arrest them, then deport them immediately. At that point they admit guilt and do not desreve a trial. Take all their property and send them home. Mexico would do the same if you were there,after a long time in their jail.


toby 2 years, 2 months ago

Agreed. Also make them pay the cost for deportation and the moving van.


BuzzG 2 years, 2 months ago

It is time we put the "illegal" back in illegal alien. With 14 million Americans unemployed, it is time we sent these criminals home and let those here legally take those jobs. The only reason illegals are still here is because Obama and the Democrats think they will be future Democratic party voters (they probably will because they like "free" stuff) and Republicans like checks they get from vegetable growers and chicken pluckers and others who want access to an unlimited supply of below market labor. Shame on our politicians for not protecting us from this onslaught. George Bush gets as much blame as Barak Obama.


Cleanupguy 2 years, 2 months ago

Agreed, minus the unnecessary tired old political rhetoric. Let's not forget that Saint Ronald Reagan legitimized two million illegals on his watch.


news2me 2 years, 2 months ago

Unfortuantely, Reagan's amnesty gave them an excuse. Today's invasion does not compare to what happened during that era. Both political parties need to listen up as this issue is heating up to be non-partisan from what I can see. Stories like this are making American citizens (D & R) angry!


R 2 years, 2 months ago

Yes he when he was promised by the Democratic majorities in Senate and House that reform would “follow” if he would only act first ….

Really we promise said Tip! You can believe a elected body member!!! right? Right?

So let’s fix this “Kabuki theater issue” once and for and try ENFORCEMENT First!!!

It CAN’T do any worse…


news2me 2 years, 2 months ago

The entitlement attitude in this country is sickening, especially by Illegal Aliens that have no right to be here. Breaking our immigration laws should be a disqualifier to becoming a US citizen. Most Illegal Aliens are not attmepting to become citizens the right way, they just want amnesty given to them. I am thrilled that many Americans are seeing these displays of defiance and entitlement by Illegals. Illegals are becoming their own worst enemies!


DB 2 years, 2 months ago

S.1200 Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986

Part B: Improvement of Enforcement and Services -

  • Revises the criminal penalties for the unlawful transportation of unauthorized aliens into the United States.

  • Permits the owner or operator of a railroad line, international bridge, or toll road to request the Attorney General to inspect and approve measures taken to prevent aliens from illegally crossing into the United States. States that such approved measures shall be prima facie evidence of compliance with obligations under such Act to prevent illegal entries.

  • Expresses the sense of the Congress that the immigration laws of the United States should be vigorously enforced, while taking care to protect the rights and safety of U.S. citizens and aliens.

Title II: Legalization - Directs the Attorney General to adjust to temporary resident status those aliens who: (1) apply within 18 months; (2) establish that they entered the United States before January 1, 1982, and have resided here continuously in an unlawful status (including Cuban/Haitian entrants) since such date; and (3) are otherwise admissible.


ssilover1 2 years, 2 months ago

Entitlement is sickening; however, the desire to have opportunity and a better life is not. Thank heavens for all of us, including the above bloggers, someone in our ancestry took the risk and came here. While I believe in "legal" status, I just wonder which one of us would have not done the same thing if we were in their shoes? We can think we are better and more legalistic, but when reality hits, I would fight with all my being to stay here. I don't have the answer and apparently no one does. But for the Grace of God so go all of us...Honestly, I don't know if my ancestors came here legally...at least I got me a SS card when I started working and had no problem getting it.


Cleanupguy 2 years, 2 months ago

Actually, Scooter, my forefathers came here legally - please do not lump these scumbags in with those.

WIC payments, the education of their anchor kids, cash basis tax evasion, free emergency room medical care, skyrocketing uninsured motorist coverage, and criminal justice system loading, just to mention a few. Check out Gwinnett County’s 287(g) program statistics and you will see that illegal immigrant crackdown success comes in all colors - all such lawbreakers should get a ride back home. Come back legally; participate in our society rather than being a burden upon it and you will be welcomed.

Bank robbers may be wonderful nice people just trying to make a living, but they too are lawbreakers, just like illegal immigrants. We can dance all around the excuse pile, use all the clever analogies on the planet, but at the end of the day they have broken the law, all too frequently continue doing so when they get here, and are an added unnecessary economic strain on taxpayers while staying here. The pro-immigrant crowd (I am among them) needs to clearly separate themselves from the much smaller yet annoyingly louder pro-illegal immigrant group, and then and only then will they find any significant support. Again, come to a 287(g) county, get arrested, fight your deportation in court, win (good luck), and things will change for you. Otherwise, bye-bye!


news2me 2 years, 2 months ago

Question for ssi --- so how many Illegals are you planning on taking into your home?


R 2 years, 2 months ago

Many DID come here through the front door - MANY MANY more still do, using the front door every day - so why can't others do the respectful thing heh?


Sandykin 2 years, 2 months ago

In their own minds, they don't see themselves as lawbreakers, just people who've been given a tough break. Their insistence that they are "undocumented" is simply denial of their true status and an attempt to fool those of us who know better. "Undocumented" is just as illegal as "illegal alien". It only serves to block from their minds, their best course of action for those that did get college educations but can't work here due to no SSN: Seek a position you are qualified for in the country of your birth. I'm sure conditions in their home country would be much better for a well educated, professional person. They probably could make enough money to support their parents and allow them to live legally in their own country as well. Seems like an opportune business: Finding professional positions for these people in their home countries. Seems to me repatriating them as professionals would bring up the standard of living in their home countries, making it less necessary for future generations to come here illegally.


notblind 2 years, 2 months ago

Making illegal immigration a "humanitarian" issue is just a component of their overall strategy for open borders and amnesty. Hijacking the 14th Amendment is another component. Until the 14th is properly applied we will not have real control over immigration.

Does anyone really think that the intent of the 14th was to bestow citizenship upon children born to illegal aliens ? It would be obvious to the most dense lawmaker that such an action could result in the parent of the child being deported creating a humanitarian crisis. The words " subject to the jurisdiction of" was put in the Amendment to indicate that children born to foreign nationals would not be considered citizens of the USA. Somehow this idea was lost and since the late 1800's millions have been made citizens that really weren't eligible.


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