What started out a few years ago as a small number of young people going public with their legal status has grown into a movement that has helped influence the immigration debate. And as it has, these young immigrants' activism has grown bolder — and riskier.
Last week, three young people born in Mexico left the United States for a country they last saw as children and teens, when they were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents.
There they joined five others like them, kids who grew up in the U.S. but returned voluntary or were deported in recent years, before the Obama administration began a program last year that might have granted them temporary legal status.
Their plan was to seek re-entry at the border as a test of U.S. policies, while championing the cause of American-raised young people left out of the immigration reform debate because they're no longer in the country.
They weren't allowed back in. On Monday, joined by one other activist in Mexico, the group that's now being referred to as the #Dream9 on Twitter was arrested at the Nogales border crossing in Arizona and taken into detention. How long they'll remain at the holding facility is uncertain.
They've reportedly asked for asylum, a difficult benefit to obtain. Fellow activists have mounted a petition campaign to bring them back, but there's a chance they could end up being sent back to Mexico.
The protest is the latest escalation as young immigrant activists go beyond "coming out" and sit-ins, participating in even riskier protests. In the last year or so, several young people working with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, or NIY — one of the groups involved in the self-deportation protest — have subjected themselves to arrest to get inside immigrant detention centers and report back on conditions there.
But the self-deportation tactic is the riskiest so far. From the Fronteras Desk, which reported on the tactic last week:
Phoenix-based immigration attorney Magaly Fontes said the demonstration is a terrible mistake.
"I don’t understand the purpose of trying to challenge the system by leaving. They’re actually jeopardizing any relief in the future for their case," Fontes said.
The protest is seen differently in advocacy circles. A sympathetic post on PolicyMic, a politics site aimed at millenials, called it "one of the most important, radical and powerful direct actions in immigration activism history."
Over the weekend before her arrest, I spoke with one of the protesters by phone from Nogales. Lizbeth Mateo arrived in the U.S. at 14, coming of age in Los Angeles. The aspiring law school student had just visited her grandfather and other relatives in Oaxaca for the first time since she left. At first, she said, "it was a little difficult to explain to them why I would take such a risk."
Mateo, who had yet to apply for temporary legal status under deferred action, said she was placing herself at risk to influence the debate on behalf of those left out of immigration reform discussions. She talked about young people raised in the U.S. who would miss out on chances for relief because they've already left the country.
"I hope that we can change the debate as to what family reunification means," Mateo said. "It's important to think of the 11 million who are still in the U.S. But under the Obama administration there have been a record number of deportations, many of them young people like myself. We should never forget them."
Whatever comes of the nine protesters, they and their peers have already changed the debate as far as young unauthorized immigrants go. A prime example is the Obama administration's 2012 deferred action program, under which some 400,000 young people have by now obtained a two-year reprieve from deportation.
Another is the proposal floated this week by House Republicans that would create a legalization plan for young people. It's met with resistance from Democrats, who see it as too limited and who favor a comprehensive overhaul. But it does indicate a shift of sorts: The two House GOP members who plan to sponsor the measure both voted against legalizing young people under the DREAM Act in 2010.