Mohammad Abdollahi has spent most of his life with a secret. He is an undocumented immigrant who was brought to the United States from Iran when he was 3 years old.
Growing up in Chicago, he was instilled with fear by his parents who told him police and immigration officials would come after him if he ever confessed his immigration status to anyone.
“They had this mentality that somebody is always looking for you,” he said.
But in May 2010, Abdollahi, then 24, decided he no longer wanted to live in the shadows. That month, he took part in one of the first acts of civil disobedience in which undocumented youth publicly proclaimed their immigration status and risked deportation.
Dressed in caps and gowns, Abdollahi and four others undocumented young immigrants participated in a sit-in at Republican Sen. John McCain’s office in Tucson, Arizona. They called on him to support the DREAM Act, legislation that would pave a pathway to citizenship for about 2.1 million law-abiding undocumented young immigrants who complete two years of college or military service.
Four of the protesters, including Abdollahi and two others who were in the country illegally, were arrested but were not put in deportation proceedings, suggesting that dreamers who are public about their immigration status are often not deported.
“Growing up, we were taught to believe that we had to hide in order to be safe, but what we actually found out is that it’s the exact opposite,” Abdollahi told VOXXI. “You’re actually safer if you’re public about your status. It just takes a little bit of time for people to realize that.”
‘COMING OUT’ IN GREATER NUMBERS
These days, thanks to political activism of dreamers like Abdollahi and subtle immigration rule changes initiated by the Obama administration, undocumented youth are publicly revealing their immigration status with almost no repercussions.
They are “coming out” in front of federal immigration courts and outside Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices. They are also staging sit-ins and civil disobedience actions inside Congressional offices and federal buildings.
Some have even confessed their undocumented status to immigration hawk Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, dubbed “America’s Toughest Sheriff.”
They are doing so to call attention to the long-awaited DREAM Act. Since 2001, the legislation has been introduced in Congress but has not passed, leaving undocumented young immigrants in limbo. In the meantime, the Obama administration has implemented policies to keep them from being deported.
Such policies include a memorandum ICE Director John Morton released June 2011. In it, he orders his officers to put at the bottom of the deportation list those who entered the U.S. as children, hold strong ties to the U.S. and have clean criminal records. Last November, the Obama administration ordered the Department of Homeland Security to review 300,000 pending deportation cases and defer any that involved DREAM Act-eligible youth.
At a press conference last month in Washington, Morton said DREAM Act-eligible youth “fall within our low priorities.” He said it “just doesn’t make good sense” to focus the agency’s limited resources on deporting them.
DREAMERS ARE STILL AT RISK
Immigrant rights advocates are quick to point out that even with policies intended to protect them, some dreamers are still being put in deportation proceedings and still can’t legally work.
They say most recently, fewer dreamers are being granted “deferred action,” a term that implies indefinitely delayed deportation and the ability to obtain a work permit.
This has prompted widespread grassroots campaigns to stop the deportation of dreamers to multiply all across the U.S. in the last two years. These efforts aim to gather signatures and petition immigration officials to allow DREAM Act-eligible youth to stay and work in the U.S.
United We Dream Network, one of the nation’s largest DREAM Act advocacy organization, is one such group. Through its END Our Pain campaign, a team of advocates provides undocumented youth in deportation proceedings with pro bono immigration attorneys. They also develop strategies on how to publicize deportation cases.
Last year, the campaign received 160 applications, 30 of which were granted relief from deportation. The others remain in the works, but none have “lost the battle” to deportation partly because of publicity surrounding the cases, said Gaby Pacheco, who heads the campaign.
She said though “coming out” as undocumented doesn’t always guarantee protection from deportation, it “creates links around you of people who will fight for you and will ensure that you don’t get deported without a fight.”
THE ROLE OF PUBLICITY
When asked whether publicity influences the way ICE officials handle cases involving DREAM Act-eligible youth, ICE spokesman Nestor Yglesias said in an email, “Each case is reviewed on its own merits.”
He added, “ICE treats every case on an individual basis; each case has unique factors that are reviewed in accordance with Director Morton’s prosecutorial discretion memo. ICE is focused on sensible, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes efforts first on those serious criminal aliens who present the greatest risk to the security of our communities, not sweeps or raids to target undocumented immigrants indiscriminately.”
Despite these assertions, José Luis Peñalosa, an Arizona immigration lawyer, said publicity certainly helped the case involving six undocumented high school and college students in Arizona earlier this year.
On March 20, the students wore t-shirts that read “we will no longer remain in the shadows” and participated in a civil disobedience action against Sheriff Arpaio and his immigration policies. They were blocking a major intersection in front of a Phoenix high school when police arrested them and turned them over to immigration authorities. The next day, they were released and didn’t face deportation.
Peñalosa, who represented the students, said he believed ICE officials released them in order to “avoid negative publicity” and to “avoid having on their record that they deported these young people.”
Susana Barciela, policy director for the Miami-based nonprofit Americans for Immigration Justice, said campaigns that publicize the deportation cases of dreamers help connect them to groups, like hers, that could offer them free legal services.
Barciela, said she fears there could be “youth who are detained but no one knows about. We don’t know about them, and people like us who can help them don’t know that they exist.”
She added, “Coming out clearly helps, but I think in the end you still have to have a good case to get deferred action.”
EMPOWERING OTHERS TO FIGHT DEPORTATIONS
Abdollahi, now 26, continues his advocacy work. He leads efforts to stop the deportation of dreamers through Dream Activists, a DREAM Act advocacy organization.
In May, the group partnered up with the National Immigration Youth Alliance, an undocumented youth-led network of grassroots organizations, to collaborate on a new program called Secure Your Own Community. Through it, they train people on how to launch public campaigns to stop deportations of DREAM Act-eligible youth and other immigrants. So far, they’ve received 67 applications of immigrants seeking relief from deportation.
All the campaigns to stave off immediate deportation for undocumented youth follow a common thread – there’s safety in numbers, and going public with immigration status seems to help more than it harms.
“We’re trying to empower the community and help them recognize that they can fight back themselves,” Abdollahi said.