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Undocumented students risk deportation for their dreams

UPDATE: We are happy that Mohammad, Yahaira and Lizbeth, who had been detained for staging the sit-in at Sen. McCain’s office, were released from ICE custody late on Tuesday night. All four students entered not-guilty to trespassing charges and were assigned a court date of June 16th. Raul Alcaraz, who is a lawful permanent resident, was released on the condition that he would appear before the court on the designated date. The three undocumented students were released much later after being issued a field released supervision by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). They will face Federal trespassing charges and will have to fight deportation. In the meanwhile, they plan to remain in Arizona and fight for the passage of the DREAM Act before the end of June. Please show them, and all the others who are fighting for their dreams your support! Go to dreamactivist.org for more info.

Yesterday, on the 65th anniversary of the landmark civil rights case, Brown vs. Board of Education, five courageous students staged a sit-in at Senator John McCain’s office in Tuscon, Arizona, to demand his support for the passage of the DREAM Act, a legislation that will set up a path to citizenship for undocumented youth who were brought to the U.S. when they were very young. At 6pm last evening, four of those young immigration activists, three of whom are undocumented, were arrested on misdemeanor trespass charges when they refused to leave the office after closing. The three undocumented students, Yahira, Lizbeth and Mohammad, have been detained and are “expected to face deportation proceedings.” According to the New York Times, “It was the first time students have directly risked deportation in an effort to prompt Congress to take up a bill that would benefit illegal immigrant youths.”

Spurred on by Arizona’s new anti-immigrant legislation, SB1070, the students staged the peaceful sit-in as a challenge to local and federal law, hoping to garner the attention of grassroots organizations and media outlets and highlight the urgency for Congress action on the DREAM Act. Dressed in caps and gowns, the students began the sit-in at lunchtime on May 17th, with a group of supporters cheering for them outside McCain’s office. Four of them, Lizbeth Mateo of Los Angeles, California, Mohammed Abdollahi of Ann Arbor, Michigan, Yahaira Carillo of Kansas City, Missouri and Raul Alcaraz, from Arizona remained in the office till 6pm, when they were arrested. The fifth young activist, Tania Unzueta of Chicago, Illinois voluntarily stepped outside to be the spokesperson for the group before the others were arrested. When asked why she would risk such an act given her undocumented status, Tania told a journalist-

Precisely because we feel that undocumented people need to be at the forefront of our movement think we are tired of not speaking for ourselves and not being able to tell our story…This is my country. This is where I’ve grown up. This is where I’ve learned everything. How to write, how to love, how to be with my community. I feel like where you’re from isn’t always where you’re born it’s the country you learn to love and this is the country that I love.

The DREAM Activists chose Senator McCain’s office as he had initially supported the bipartisan legislation, and only recently, reflective of his new hard-line stance on immigration, had withdrawn his support from it. Although Senator McCain’s office offered the students a meeting to talk about the DREAM Act, they refused it, saying that this late into the debate, they would not take anything short of a statement of support from him. Speaking to the local news, Lizbeth Mateo said-

We’re not going to move, we’re not going to move until Senator McCain cosponsors the Dream Act, so whatever it takes, we’re going to stay here.

Her fellow activist Mohammad, originally from Iran, expressed confidence in garnering a response from John McCain-

We’re here, knowing that he will support the DREAM Act, knowing that he has supported it in the past, ask him to step up and cosponsor the DREAM Act and so we’re waiting at the office until he cosponsors the DREAM Act and writes us a written statement…

Even after a vigil outside the detention center that is holding the three students, there was no statement from Senator McCain’s office. 24 year old Mohammad, who co-founded Dreamactivist.org and led the sit-in, has lived in the United States since he was 3, and feels like fighting for the passage of the DREAM Act is definitely worth his life. For Mohammad, who is openly gay, the repercussions of being sent back to his country of origin, Iran, are frightening. Profiling Mohammad’s story for the Michigan Messenger, Todd Heywood writes-

His action, however, is far from just an act of civil disobedience. As a young gay man, he faces deportation to a country where he knows neither the language nor the culture — and worse, where homosexuality is punished with torture and executions. His supporters say he is literally putting his life on the line by “coming out” as an undocumented, gay youth.

These students risked everything to stage the sit-in yesterday, but the truth is that for them, and the thousands of undocumented students that they represent, the stakes are high regardless. Every year, 65,000 youth graduate from high schools after spending most of their childhoods in the U.S., but are unable to pursue their dreams for higher education and careers because of their undocumented status. According to the College Board, the passage of the DREAM Act would provide about 350,000 undocumented high school graduates with the “legal means to work and attend college,” allowing them to capitalize on their education and contribute to the economy of the country.

Until the DREAM Act is passed, legislation like that passed in Arizona, which allows local law enforcement to question people about their citizenship status based on “reasonable suspicion,” is highly dangerous for the thousands of undocumented youth who were brought to the country when they were children, and have fully assimilated into American culture. With young people taking the lead on demanding immigration reform, there is a silver lining to the dark cloud that Arizona’s SB1070 has brought with it. The good news is that it is the American youth, across racial, ethnic, geography and class lines, that are showing support and positivity on issues of diversity and immigration.

A New York Times article published today finds that there is a glaring generational gap when it comes to the immigration debate. While older Americans, including the baby boomer generation, take a conservative stance on immigration enforcement and reform, polls show that Americans below the age of 45 are much more agreeable to a “welcome all” approach. The article attributes this to the vastly different environments that these generations grew up in. It says-

Those born after the civil rights era lived in a country of high rates of legal and illegal immigration. In their neighborhoods and schools, the presence of immigrants was as hard to miss as a Starbucks today. In contrast, baby boomers and older Americans — even those who fought for integration — came of age in one of the most homogenous moments in the country’s history….In 1970, only 4.7 percent of the country was foreign born, and most of those immigrants were older Europeans, often unnoticed by the boomer generation born from 1946 to 1964. Boomers and their parents also spent their formative years away from the cities, where newer immigrants tended to gather — unlike today’s young people who have become more involved with immigrants, through college, or by moving to urban areas.

While this polarization complicates the movement on policy when it comes to issues like immigration, it is heartening to know that with the future belonging to these optimistic and open young Americans, the future is sure to be brighter than the present. In the meanwhile, we salute the courage of these brave young activists, and ask you to take a moment to think about two leaders of the DREAM Act movement, Tam Ngoc Tran and Cinthya Felix, who we lost in a tragic accident this past weekend.

Photo courtesy of nytimes. com

Obama meets senators on immigration as undocumented dreamers come out of the shadows

My name is Nico and I’m undocumented. I’m coming out of the shadows because I am no longer afraid. I came to this country in 1992, following my mother to the land where the bread that would feed her children was. I have recently lost my mother to cancer, undoubtedly from the chemical factory she worked at most of her life. She was unable to demand better health and safety conditions due to her “status.” But she kept on working for me and the rest of my family. She worked everyday in fear not knowing if “la migra” would come and take her away from us. Now she is buried in the land of freedom, the land where she’s considered a criminal. I’m standing up today for her, myself, and the millions of families like ours.

Nico was just one of dozens of undocumented youth who took the decision to take to the streets and “come out” of their undocumented status in mobilizations across the country yesterday. “Coming Out of the Shadows Week” is an initiative of Dream Activist and the Chicago-based Immigrant Youth Justice League which  which will culminate in the nation-wide “March for America”. Inspired by gay rights activism, the initiative empowers undocumented youth who are tired of being persecuted by the system to stand up and break the silence about their status.

Its kick off began yesterday in Chicago when eight undocumented youth surrounded by a thousand supporters holding signs saying “Undocumented and Unafraid” gathered outside Senator Richard Durbin’s office to ensure the introduction of the bipartisan immigration reform bill in the Senate. 26 year old University of Illinois student Tania Unzueta, one of the founders of the Immigrant Youth Justice League, was one of the eight.

Like thousands of others, Tania was brought to the U.S. on a tourist visa by her parents at the age of 10, who stayed on with the hope of a better future. Despite being captain of the swim team, Tania has always had to keep her status a secret and make up stories to justify not having a driver’s license and not being able to travel out of the country with her swim team. Tired and frustrated of being trapped in a scenario that she had no hand in creating, she has taken steps to become active in the movement for the passage of the Dream Act. Speaking about “Coming Out” as a radical and extremely personal act, she said,

It’s scary on one hand, but it’s also liberating. I feel like I’ve been hiding for so long…There’s a sense of urgency. We’re angry. We’re frustrated. We thought this would be a good strategy to get our community mobilized.

Every year, about 65,000 undocumented immigrants graduate from U.S. high schools and live in constant fear of being kicked out of college, losing their scholarships, and not being able to apply for jobs. Research indicates that there are currently 3.2 million undocumented young adults living in a state of limbo whose status prevents them from using their education to become fully contributing members of society. First introduced by Senator Richard Durbin and Representative Howard Burmen, the provisions of the Dream Act allows undocumented youth to be eligible for a conditional path to citizenship. If you are an undocumented youth and need help to come out, here’s some great advice on why and how to do so. To get you started, here’s Gabriel’s brave coming out story.

The pressure mounting on Congress seems to be yielding some results. Three grassroots meetings are slated for today, ones that we hope will lead to concrete action. At 1 pm, grassroots leaders will meet with senior White House staff. This will be followed by a much publicized meeting between President Obama and Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) (who are working on a bipartisan immigration reform bill), seen as a move to insert immigration back onto a congressional agenda. And finally, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus is also meeting with the President today to discuss health care and immigration.

Should we be holding our breaths?

POLL: Will Obama's meeting today with Sen. Schumer and Sen. Graham yield concrete action on immigration?

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