LOS ANGELES -- A pair of college students from Southern California recently walked into a Border Patrol office in Alabama, the state whose immigration law is considered the harshest in the nation.
Jonathan Perez, 24, and Isaac Barrera, 20, openly admitted to the federal officers on duty in Mobile, Ala., that they were undocumented. It was a brazen act of protest against what the students said were the contradictory immigration enforcement policies of the Obama administration.
Within the hour, the Pasadena City College students were arrested and swallowed up in what critics call the quagmire of immigration detention. They spent more than two weeks in custody, initially in Alabama and later at a federal detention facility in Louisiana.
Perez, who came to the U.S. from Colombia with his family when he was 3 years old, said landing in federal immigration detention last month "was about coming out of the shadows."
"We need to live without fear because the fear paralyzes us," Perez told The Huffington Post. "If we stay quiet, we stay in the shadows."
Increasingly, undocumented student-activists -- many of whom would be eligible under the DREAM Act, which remains un-passed -- are becoming more audacious in their civil disobedience. Some even risk deportation to raise awareness about the urgency of immigration reform. The longstanding DREAM legislation would grant some undocumented students legal status in return for two years of college or military service.
"We are undocumented, unafraid and now undercover," said a post on dreamactivist.org, an online network of undocumented students, while Perez and Barrera were still in federal detention.
The young activists collected information on the other detainees, and have helped put many in touch with their families, consulates and lawyers through the ACLU in Louisiana.
Perez and Barrera said their own life stories turned them into activists and co-founders of the San Gabriel Valley Dream Team, a coalition of undocumented students.
After an extensive media blitz by Dreamactivist.org lobbied for their release and targeted key public officials in Washington, Perez and Barrera were freed on their own recognizance, pending deportation proceedings. Barrera appears before a Los Angeles immigration judge in January; Perez in March.
In protests throughout the country, young activists ask a similar question: why does the Obama administration continue to detain and deport the very people it claims not to have any interest in removing, including adults with clean records and young people who are eligible for the DREAM Act?
Advocates claim the government has been slow to implement a new deportation policy announced in a June memo by Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton. The memo reinforces the government's use of "prosecutorial discretion" for low-priority cases such as people with longstanding community ties and no criminal records, among other factors.
In August, the White House Blog announced that the Department of Homeland Security would for the first time focus resources on the deportation of persons with criminal records instead of low-priority cases, including "individuals such as young people who were brought to this country as small children, and who know no other home."
But Perez and Barrera said the government's own actions challenge the Obama administration's policy of allowing undocumented immigrants with no criminal records and strong ties to the U.S. to remain in the country.
Despite the policy change, the Obama administration announced in October that it had deported a record number of undocumented immigrants, nearly reaching the 400,000 limit federal officials said they can handle each year with current funding levels.
The Justice Department, under the Obama administration, has sought legal action to block state laws similar to Alabama's from Arizona to South Carolina. This week, the Supreme Court decided to take up the case reviewing the constitutionality of several key provisions of Arizona's own harsh immigration law, SB 1070. The high court's action could impact similar immigration laws passed by Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Indiana and Utah.
Although undocumented, Perez has the right to work and drive as a result of his family's 1996 political asylum petition, which was denied on appeal in 2004.
Perez told the Huffington Post that a federal officer reviewing his case was perplexed by his ambiguous immigration status.
"The ICE officer was very confused," Perez recalled. "He said, 'You're in limbo.'"
Barrera was 3 years old when he moved with his mother and brother to Los Angeles, from the border town of Mexicali, Baja California. He told The Huffington Post that he participated in the protest "to empower other youth ... and to give a clear message that when you directly challenge the system, it falls apart."
Dreamactivist.org is mounting a campaign to stop the deportation of Gustavo Alvarez, a high school senior from Oregon who was to be deported this week.
"We aren't asking people to get arrested but to continue to share their stories," Perez said. "By challenging the system very publicly, that shows we are safe about being public about our status."
Other young undocumented students have also turned to activism.
On Aug. 24, activists visited the ICE offices in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles to protest Secure Communities, an ICE program meant to prioritize the "removal of criminal aliens." Three people were arrested outside, and the five protesters -- all undocumented -- were eventually released.
On Nov. 15, in Montgomery, Alabama, protesters gathered outside the Alabama Statehouse as a statement against the state's controversial HB 56 law. The strictest in the nation, the bill would bar undocumented immigrants from public colleges and deny them public services, including utilities. It would also allow local police to question persons about their immigration status with "reasonable suspicion."
Perez and Barrera said detention gave them insight into the obstacles faced by detainees and the uneven way immigration law is enforced.
"Most (detainees) don't know when they're going to be tried or if there's a hearing or if they're going to be deported," Barrera said. "Jonathan and I didn't know what was happening. We knew that we had friends organizing for us but we didn’t know when we were going to get out."
A shortage of immigrant rights organizations in the South was another hurdle. "There really isn't a DREAMer group or a strong immigrant rights infrastructure like [in] Los Angeles," Perez said.
Perez said the majority of detainees he spoke with claimed they were arrested after traffic violations or solely because of their legal status. "I think the harshest crime was one man accidentally walked into the women's washroom and the women called ICE."
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