By Kate Brumback
ATLANTA — Eighteen-year-old Dulce Guerrero kept quiet about being an illegal immigrant until earlier this year, when she became upset after a traffic stop that landed her mother in jail for two nights.
The arrest came as Georgia lawmakers were crafting what would become one of the nation’s toughest immigration crackdowns, and Guerrero feared her mother would be deported.
“I feel like that was my breaking point, when my mom was in jail,” said Guerrero, who came to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 2. “I felt like, well, that’s it, it can’t get any worse than this. My mother has been to jail.”
Guerrero first publicly announced her immigration status at a protest in March, and now she’s organizing a rally under the tutelage of more experienced activists who are themselves only a few years older.
The high-stakes movement of young illegal immigrants declaring that they’re “undocumented and unafraid” got a boost last week when a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist revealed he’s been living in the country illegally.
Guerrero is the chief organizer of a rally last Tuesday at the Georgia State Capitol for high school-age illegal immigrants to tell their stories. The recent high school graduate and others hoped to draw attention to the plight of the hundreds of thousands of young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents.
Already around the country, efforts by young activists have ranged from rallies and letter-writing to sit-ins and civil disobedience, drawing inspiration from civil rights demonstrations decades ago, with the aim of forcing the federal government to reform rules for immigrants in their situation.
In one of the most high-profile declarations yet, former Washington Post reporter Jose Antonio Vargas used an ABC News interview and a New York Times Magazine article to announce last month that he is an illegal immigrant from the Philippines.
“It’s very exciting,” said 25-year-old Mohammad Abdollahi, a veteran protester who’s helping Guerrero. Vargas’ revelation “shows that we exist in all walks of life. Folks don’t realize how American we are,” he said.
Some in the community fear Vargas’ admission that he used false documents to get a driver’s license and a job could invite backlash, but it illustrates the difficult reality for illegal immigrants seeking to pursue their goals, Abdollahi said.
Those who come forward make themselves vulnerable, but it’s no guarantee they’ll have to leave the United States right away. Some have been deported despite broad support from their communities asking that they be allowed to stay. Others, like Georgia college student and cause celebre Jessica Colotl, have won at least temporary reprieves.
Mandeep Chahal, an honors student at UC Davis, and her mother were granted a stay in their deportation proceedings last month after Chahal, 20, campaigned on Facebook to avoid being sent back to India.
Proponents of stricter enforcement of immigration laws often concede that young people in this situation are among the most sympathetic cases but that legalizing them still raises problems.
“Our own American young adult college grads are in dire straits in the job market — and particularly disproportionately Hispanic and black Americans — so what the DREAM Act does is adds potentially a million, 2 million more people to compete legally in that job market,” said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which pushes for tighter immigration control.
“So, as compelling as the case of these DREAM students is, we have to acknowledge that legalizing them does actually victimize our own young adults.”
Guerrero was working to attract participants for last week’s rally by telling friends how relieved she felt after speaking out. But she never tries to push people to reveal they’re in the U.S. illegally unless they’re ready and understand the potential consequences.
She’s taking advice from Abdollahi and 22-year-old Georgina Perez, who have both helped organize other protests and share similar backgrounds. Abdollahi was brought to the U.S. from Iran when he was 3 and was raised in Michigan; Perez arrived with her mother from Mexico at age 2, living first in Los Angeles and then near Atlanta.
They offer Guerrero the perspective of activists willing to risk arrest — and the threat of deportation — for their beliefs. Abdollahi, who’s been organizing protests since 2009, was held briefly with three others after they staged a sit-in at Arizona Sen. John McCain’s office last year. Perez was arrested after she and six other young immigrants sat in a downtown Atlanta intersection and blocked traffic.
Deportation proceedings were begun against Abdollahi but haven’t progressed past the initial stages, while immigration authorities took no action against Perez. The Obama administration hasn’t promised not to deport young people in their situation, but Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has made it clear they are not a priority.
Still, the threat of being forced out of the country weighs heavily on those who announce their illegal status.
“I was super nervous,” Perez said, adding: “I had to do it because in order for students to come out, they need to see something; someone needs to set the example.”
The hardest thing, she said, was when she told her mother her plans the night before the rally and her mother apologized for putting her in a difficult situation.
“It’s like you can’t really fully live your life here, and she knows that and it breaks her heart,” Perez said, choking up. “I thank her for bringing me here. I told her, ‘Don’t ever say that again. Don’t apologize.’ ”
Abdollahi moved to Georgia earlier this year to help organize young people who oppose a new policy that bars illegal immigrants from the state’s most competitive public colleges and universities. They’re also speaking out against the state’s new law that, among other things, authorizes law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of suspects who cannot provide identification and to detain illegal immigrants.
Guerrero reached out to Perez to ask her to give a presentation at her school on the DREAM Act, legislation that would provide a path to legalization for certain young people brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. The bill has been introduced several times in Congress but has yet to make it through.
They kept in touch and Guerrero first spoke out at the rally in March, not long after her mother’s January arrest. She spoke out again at the rally in April and also organized a walkout at her high school in May.
Her parents are extremely protective and she talks to them about how they’ve given up so much to raise her and her brothers here, she said. They’re proud of her and support her speaking out, but they’re scared, she said.
“They’ve brought me as far as they can,” she said. “It’s time for me to take my decisions and walk on my own, and if that means publicly coming out as undocumented to empower other students, that’s what I’m gonna do.”
— Associated Press writer Garance Burke in San Francisco contributed to this report