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Risking Deportation, Undocumented Students Publicly Disclose Their Status to Advocate for the Dream Act

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"What have I ever done wrong other than try to be a good student, try to give back to my family that has loved and supported me?"

Juan Rodriguez, an undocumented student, posed this question to national audience on Friday March 12, during an interview with Rick Sanchez on CNN. Risking deportation from the only country they have ever known, Juan and three other students are on a journey from Miami to Washington, DC to advocate for the passage of the Dream Act. Walking 18 miles per day, they will arrive having walked more than 1,800 miles total, on a journey they call Trail of Dreams. Along the way, they have picked up support from various religious and civic groups.

Similarly, the United We Dream Network, a national coalition of undocumented student groups advocating for the Dream Act, has also increased its ranks. Most recently, Princeton University students joined the network by the establishing the Princeton Dream Team. Like the Trail of Dream walkers, United We Dream Network members have decided to risk deportation and potential separation from their families by "coming out," to highlight the urgent need for the Dream Act. They have organized a series of "coming out" activities across the country during the week of March 15.

To launch the campaign, on March 10 a group of 8 undocumented students held a press conference at the Federal Plaza in Chicago to publicly announce their undocumented status.

"Coming out actions are being planned by thousands of students who are choosing to stop living in fear," said Carlos Saavedra, national field coordinator for the United We Dream Network. "The courage shown by these students highlights the character of a generation of immigrant youth, willing to lay everything on the line in the hopes of claiming the American Dream as their own. It is time we as a nation recognize the true worth of these untapped resources."

Civil rights organizations have also joined undocumented students groups in advocating for the passage of the Dream Act. When the Trail of Dream walkers reached Georgia, members of a local NAACP chapter joined them as they confronted KKK protesters. Juan, one of the student walkers noted this in his blog entry on that day:

Ultimately, the success of today was to be able to stand hand in hand with our friends from the NAACP; singing liberation songs together and acknowledging our united struggle for racial justice. We ALL deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. We all deserve to be acknowledged for our humanity.

As I noted in a previous Huffington Post commentary, immigration reform is the modern civil rights issue for immigrant communities. It is of particular concern to Latinos, since 75% of undocumented immigrants are from Latin America. Undocumented student activists have learned from the successes of the civil rights movement and have applied some of the same strategies in their struggle for equality. During the Martin Luther King, Jr. national holiday, the Trail of Dream walkers held a press conference in St. Augustine, Florida, a pivotal site for the civil rights movement during 1963-64.

Not only are they marching in the tradition of nonviolent social movements, but they have also linked their struggle with previous civil injustices. The Trail of Dreams is clearly intended as a historical reference to the Trail of Tears, the mass relocation of Native Americans to Oklahoma in the 1800's. Without the Dream Act, undocumented students will continue to live with the fear of relocation to a country of origin virtually unknown to them.

March 15 marks the beginning of the United We Dream Network's "National Coming Out of the Shadows Week." This campaign draws inspiration from the struggle for equal rights by the gay and lesbian community. On the homepage of dreamactivist.org, the online hub for the United we Dream Network, the following quote from famed activist Harvey Milk is prominently displayed to encourage undocumented students to disclosure their status to advocate for equal rights and the passage of the Dream Act:

Brothers and Sisters, you must come out! come out to your parents, come out to your friends, if indeed they are your friends, come out to your neighbors, come out to your fellow workers. Once and for all, let's break down the myth and destroy the lies and distortions. For your sake, for their sake. For the sake of all the youngsters who've been scared by the votes from Dade to Eugene. On the Statue of Liberty it says "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free." In the Declaration of Independence it is written, "All men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights." For Mr. Briggs and Mrs. Bryant and all the bigots out there, no matter how hard you try, you can never erase those words from the Declaration of Independence! No matter how hard you try you can never chip those words from the base of the Statue of Liberty! That is where America is!

Approximately 3.2 million undocumented immigrant children and young adults live in the shadows. It has been almost ten years since Congress promised them the American Dream. The wait has become increasingly insufferable.

Gaby, one of the Trail of Dream walkers, noted her suffering on CNN, "Every time someone comes knocking on the door, even if it's a friendly knock, my heart starts beating really fast. It's just the fear from being removed from the place I call home."

Inspired by history and equipped with strategies learned from previous struggles for civil rights, undocumented students are becoming increasingly daring in their struggle for justice. Through public disclosure of their undocumented status, they are willing to risk deportation from the only home they have ever known to remind Congress to deliver on the promise first made in 2001 when the Dream Act was introduced. According to Carlos, one of the Trail of Dream walkers, "We don't want to continue living in fear, living in the shadows, we want to come out."