BOSTON — Immigrant advocates have staged sit-ins, held rallies and gone on hunger strikes in recent days in an 11th hour bid to get Congress to pass legislation that would give illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship by going to college or serving in the military.
As Congress gets closers to a possible vote on the bill, called the DREAM Act, college-aged illegal immigrants are literally shedding blood for the cause.
On Friday, a group of illegal immigrant college students, or "DREAMers" as they called themselves, donated blood at Harvard University and other colleges. The students said they wanted to show the rest of the country that they are ready to perform community service and are good citizens, even if they don't have U.S. citizenship.
"As someone who is undocumented ... I'm not scared about giving blood," said Megha Sharma, 22, whose family came to Massachusetts from India seven years ago and who donated blood Friday for the first time. "I'm scared about the vote in Congress."
The DREAM Act is in the pile of legislation awaiting action in the final days of the current Congress.
Myrna Orozco, a 20-year-old from Kansas City, Mo., who is spearheading the national effort, said supporters have been donating blood in the name of the cause for about two weeks. So far, she said "DREAMers" have given blood in California, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Texas and Virginia, with more states targeted in the coming days.
Orozco, who was brought to the U.S. from Mexico as a child, donated blood Friday at Donnelly College in Kansas City, Kansas, where she is a student.
"I'm type O," she said. "So everybody can take my blood."
Nothing prevents illegal immigrants from giving blood and blood-collection workers don't check immigration status, said Red Cross spokeswoman Stephanie Millian. She said all blood donors just need to show identification and fill out health questionnaires.
Steve Kropper, co-director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Immigration Reform, a bipartisan group that seeks immigration reductions, said the whole episode showed that authorities have the tools to identify immigrants who were unlawfully in the country.
"This is a missed opportunity. We know where they are enrolled in school. We know where they live," said Kropper. "Shouldn't we be taking advantage of this?"
Renata Teodoro, 22, who led the delegation to the blood drive at Harvard University, said the idea of donating blood came after immigrant students started calling on each other to promote good citizenship by performing community service during the holidays.
"DREAMers all over have been doing community services," said Teodoro, who was a child when her family unlawfully brought her to the U.S. from Brazil. "We want to continue giving back to this country because we do love this country and we do consider ourselves to be Americans. We're just fighting for our right to be acknowledged as Americans."
In addition to donating blood, student immigrants are volunteering at homeless shelters and donating turkeys at holiday food drives. Orozco said one group in Kentucky held a food drive outside a congressman's office and then went to donate blood next door.
"This is not the first time I'm donating," said Elizabeth Ponce, 20, who gave blood at Harvard. "It probably won't be the last."
U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said the students "are reminding everyone what it really means to be an American."
"Only three in a hundred Americans will ever donate blood despite the need, but these kids are living out the real full measure of citizenship," he said. "They're living, breathing testimony of the importance of passing the DREAM Act."
Marie Parente, a former Massachusetts state representative who opposed efforts to give the state's illegal immigrants in-state tuition, said the blood donation drive did little to change her opinion that the DREAM Act was wrong. She compared illegal immigrants donating blood to win sympathy with serial killers donating blood to get off death row.
"What if a guy on death row says 'I'll give you a pint of blood for the rest of my life ... just get me out of here'?" said Parente, 82, of Milford. "It's baseless."
Orozco said illegal immigrant students have nothing in common with criminals and the immigrants are just seeking to go to college or join the military.
"Our blood is just as good as other people's blood," said Orozco.