PHOENIX — Among the 10,000 or so protesters who gathered in front of the state Capitol here last weekend under a scorching sun, one group stood out. Despite the heat, they wore graduation caps and gowns in shiny royal blue and sunburst yellow.
They were graduates of American colleges, young people who mostly grew up in the United States, accidental Americans who just happen to be living here illegally.
Like the rest of the crowd, they came to protest Arizona’s controversial new immigration enforcement law, but they also sought recognition of a long-sought goal — passage of the Dream Act, federal legislation that would provide a path toward legal status for people like them
Unlike their parents, however, these young people aren’t keeping quiet about their immigration status.
They are staging protests around the country, risking arrest and deportation. It’s something their parents, for the most part, would never thinkof doing. But as this group of mostly 20-somethings sees it, they are American in every way — except on paper. They have lived in the United States for at least 10 years. They speak perfect English and attended grade schools and universities here. They have American friends, American lifestyles and typical American sensibilities.
And what’s more American than speaking out?
“In school we learned that if you do everything right and live by the rules, that you’ll be rewarded, that everything will pay off, that you can be whatever you want to be,” said Lizbeth Mateo, 25, who came to this country from Mexico at age 14. “We really believed that. We never felt different from other American kids, and now we want to start contributing to our country and make our country better.”
In the past few weeks, as public criticism of Arizona’s law has grown, several young activists have been arrested while engaging in civil disobedience. They’ve sought to capitalize on a moment when Americans are fixated on immigration to draw attention to their own political battle. Though they despise the Arizona law, they don’t want the Dream Act to get lost in the debate. They support comprehensive reform that would provide a path to legalization for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country, but they want separate legislation — “a down payment” for the roughly 1.5 million people who would be eligible for the Dream Act — passed in the interim.
These young people are tired of waiting. So they are staging sit-ins at the district offices of members of Congress and blocking traffic in front of federal buildings. In some cases, those arrested may face deportation to countries where they have not lived for many years and where they no longer have strong ties.
“We’ve been organizing for years,” said Yahaira Carrillo, 25, who came to the United States at age 8 with her parents. “We’ve done everything else that we could, the faxing letters to Congress, the lobbying, the letter-writing campaigns, the conference panels, the media interviews. What else do we need to do for our political leaders to hear us?”
Carrillo was one of five students who took part in a sit-in last month outside the Tucson office of Sen. John McCain (R). They were hoping to convince the senator to help revive the Dream Act legislation. Instead, four of them were arrested and are awaiting a court hearing later this month. Three of the students, including Carrillo, are undocumented.
And if they face deportation? “That’s something that we’ll deal with when we have to,” Carrillo says calmly.
That fearlessness — or naivete — separates Carrillo’s generation from that of her parents. This divide was evident at the protest last Saturday. “These are different times,” said Irene, an older immigrant from El Salvador who took part in the march and did not give her last name for fear of repercussions at her job. “Our kids are of a different time. They feel they are a more vital part of America.”
Her friend Ann Saladrigas added: “They’re more out in the open.”
The difference is striking to me, too. As an immigrant who came of age in the early 1980s, I’ve watched this fledging movement with a mix of admiration and trepidation. I admire the young immigrants’ unapologetic moxie, but I worry that it might cause a backlash. “American except on paper” is an important distinction to a lot of people who view legal status as a privilege, not a right. Then again, few activist movements won new “rights” by waiting for them to be handed out; they got them by agitating for them.
I came to the United States from Haiti at age 6, along with four older siblings. Although my family came here legally, we had friends and relatives who were undocumented. In those days, we never discussed loved ones’ immigration status with anyone outside the family. Rallies and sit-ins were out of the question. Being undocumented was a source of embarrassment and fear. It remains so for older immigrants, but the Dream Act generation considers it merely a temporary state.
Without question, these young activists are a sympathetic and impressive bunch. Many were top high school students who went on to earn college degrees. Well-educated, media savvy and politically astute, they have something to say and are not shy about saying it. Over the years, they’ve consistently earned the support of both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. In April, Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) asked Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to halt deportations of students who would be eligible for legal status under the Dream Act.
The legislation has languished in Congress for nearly a decade, despite lobbying by the students and immigrant advocacy organizations. If passed, it would permit certain undocumented students to become permanent legal residents if they came to this country before age 16 and attend college or enlist in the military.
“Everyone who is in this group has been fighting for the Dream Act for years,” said Tania Unzueta, 26, who emigrated from Mexico when she was 10 along with her parents and 6-year-old sister. She took part in the sit-in at the McCain office but left before being arrested.
“It’s not just about us,” she says. “We see many other people even younger than us going through this, so we wanted to give it our most and take this last stand.”
Marjorie Valbrun is a journalist and senior writer at America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy organization in Washington.