Children of undocumented families ‘outing’ their illegal status
By Helen O’Neill June 3, 2012 1:38PM
In this Friday, March 16, 2012 photo, New York resident Melissa Garcia Velez from Colombia speaks during a rally in Union Square in New York. 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/Mary Altaffer)
Updated: June 3, 2012 2:24PM
Across the country, children of families who live in the United States illegally are “coming out” — marching behind banners that say “undocumented and unafraid,” staging sit-ins in federal offices, and getting arrested in the most defiant ways.
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.
“I breathe American air, travel on American roads, eat American food, listen to American radio, watch American TV, dress in American clothing,” says Alaa Mukahhal. “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. A piece of paper cannot define me. I am a Muslim, an Arab, a Palestinian and an American.”
Mukahhal, 25, crashed headfirst into what she calls the “invisible wall” of the undocumented 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 undocumented 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,” Mukahhal says. “My mind was withering. It is like being stuck in time, except I’m still aging.”
Mukahhal, despairs when she hears the anti-immigrant rhetoric of politicians and others, who tell her to come into the country “the right way” or “get in line.”
“People don’t understand,” says Mukahhal, who applied for asylum in the hope that an immigration judge will understand her situation. “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.
Even critics who are sympathetic to their cause say the federal government has failed to secure the U.S. borders and that it’s too costly to provide schooling, hospital care and other public services to non-citizens. Offering a path to citizenship for those brought into the country illegally as children, they say, simply rewards the parents’ law-breaking.
Still, more young people are publicly “coming out” and asserting their right to stay— 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 who has traveled around the country, organizing some of the boldest protests to date.
Abdollahi, 26, who came from Iran at the age of 3 and grew up in Ann Arbor, Mich., says 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.
Disgusted by the 2007 failure of the DREAM Act, which would allow a path to citizenship for some undocumented youth who graduated from high school and spent two years in college or in the military, Abdollahi and others organized 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 annual “coming out” rallies across the country, and — taking cues from the civil rights movement — getting arrested for acts of civil disobedience.
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 undocumented students graduate from American high schools every year.
“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. “This IS our home, the one we pledged allegiance to every morning before school.”
Lee, now 29, holds a kind of iconic status among “dreamers”, because, in a sense, she was the first to go public.
A gifted musician, Lee 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 the DREAM Act in 2001.
“We need to be doing all we can to keep these talented, dedicated, American students here,” Durbin said, “not wasting increasingly precious resources sending them away to countries they barely remember.”