On Wednesday, a young woman who is a law student at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. tweeted this message:
My name is Prerna Preshika Lal. I'm alien number 203-128-987. I've never committed a crime. But I'm being deported away from my family.
It was a wrenchingly personal tweet from the Fijian-born 26-year-old, who for the past few years has been an outspoken advocate for legalizing undocumented youths brought here as minors, as she was at age 13. The message is also an example of one facet of a growing movement as more young people go public with their immigration status, relying on social media to build a network of support - and, in some cases, to help them stay in the country.
The day before Lal sent out her tweet, the social media website Mashable posted a piece on how student immigrant advocates have fought deportations with the help of social media, and won. The piece told the stories of a few young people who, through a network of advocacy groups and websites that grew around the Dream Act (including one spearheaded by Lal) have managed to stave off deportation, at least temporarily.
One case cited was that of Walter Lara, a Miami college student born in Argentina who two years ago tweeted "I'm being deported." This led to a friend creating a Facebook group, which in turn led to public and legislative support, which eventually led to a temporary deferment of his deportation.
From the piece:
Campaigns usually start with an individual tweet or Facebook status update that alerts the network that someone has been detained or has received notification that he or she will be deported. Hashtags or @messages ensure that those are targeted at the group and known organizers, who then spread the word and start online petitions that are directed at legislators.
Videos of the person telling his or her story are often posted on YouTube. At the same time, organizers on the ground work on getting attorneys and setting up rallies. If all these come together successfully, a deportation can be halted.
At least a couple of dozen deportations have been suspended in this fashion, according to student organizers. Nancy Meza, a UCLA graduate and member of a group called Dream Team Los Angeles, said that one of the side benefits to young people "coming out" as undocumented is participation in what has become a broad support network of peers.
"What we've seen is that the more public you are, the more out there you are, the more public support you have, especially in deportation cases," said Meza, 24. "People have seen you be involved with the community, your activism, and they are more willing to help. I think that going public is one of the ways that a person could have a better opportunity of getting deferred action."
Immigrants of all stripes have long relied on social networks for support, referrals and advice. But a different sort of immigrant support network, composed chiefly of young people who were raised here as Americans, coalesced last year around passing the Dream Act, failed legislation that would have granted conditional legal status to undocumented college students and military hopefuls. Politically astute and tech-savvy, this is not your parents' immigrant network.
"A lot of us have grown up here," Meza said. "We've adapted. We know how to use social media. And we are really strategic about putting ourselves out there."
One example of the swift action this young network is capable of when one if its own lands in trouble is the case of Steve Li, a San Francisco college student who early last fall was taken into U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody along with his parents, Chinese immigrants by way of Peru who lost their bid for asylum.
As news of Li's arrest trickled out, friends created a Facebook page. At the time, the Dream Act campaign was in full swing, and multiple activists began tweeting his story. It was picked up by mainstream media as Li sat in an Arizona detention center awaiting deportation. Days before he was set to board a flight, California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein introduced a private bill that granted him a temporary reprieve.
The fact that some young undocumented immigrants have avoided deportation under the Obama administration, which has otherwise deported record numbers of people, does not sit well with anti-illegal immigration activists. A recent piece in one conservative magazine read that "the DREAM Act is now the law even though Congress did not pass it."
But stories like Li's aren't the norm, said Kyle de Beausset, an immigrant rights activist based in Massachusetts who last year posted videos of undocumented youths telling their personal stories on his Citizen Orange website.
"There there is definitely not a hands-off policy on Dreamers," de Beausset said. "Anyone who has tried to stop a deportation can attest to that. I spent six months trying to stop a deportation, and I gave it everything. And for anyone who gets a deferred action, ICE can reverse that. I know of cases that have been lost. And those are just the cases we know about."
One of those who helped establish the online support network - and who may now benefit from it - is Prerna Lal. The law student, whose application for a green card was denied, was a founder of Dream Activist, an advocacy website and social media hub with the Twitter handle @DreamAct. She also blogs for for the social-justice advocacy website Change.org, which has begun circulating a petition on her behalf.
Lal, who wasn't available for an interview today, tweeted this plea with the petition a few days ago:
I'm the granddaughter of a U.S. citizen, the youngest child of U.S. legal residents, and I'm being deported. Help.