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Immigration Reform 2013: Will These Young People Do What Congress Can't?

The bipartisan group tasked with drafting an immigration reform bill for the House of Representatives shrank further on Friday, after Texas Republicans John Carter and Sam Johnson announced they were leaving. The group now counts five members, of which only one is Republican. As David Weigel pointed out in Slate, this renders the group “functionally useless.” After Arizona implemented SB 1070 in 2010, fears increased that other states would follow their model and pass their own restrictive immigration regulations. Instead, while Congress stalls, states are embracing more progressive immigration regulations: California recently gave expanded rights to non-citizens, joining a dozen or so other states that have passed similar measures in the past few years. As the most ethnically diverse and the most progressive generation in American history, millennials have become more and more active in the battle for immigration reform.

Many of our peers, who have resided and studied in the United States for most of their lives, are declaring their “undocumented” status to both draw attention to the issues involved and give faces to some of the estimated 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in America today. While the House squabbles over paths to citizenship and increased border security, these DREAMers, as they are commonly called in association with the DREAM Act, have been making headway through new forms of civil disobedience. Young, bright, and motivated, they have formed networks and support groups harnessing the power of the internet and social media. Campaigns like Undocumented and Unafraid or Trail of Dreams, in addition to platforms like United We Dream and Dreamactivist, help put pressure on policy makers while also offering online resources for undocumented people.

The National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), which coordinates its initiatives mainly through Facebook, Twitter, and posts on Dreamactivist, recently orchestrated a new and radical form of protest. Nine undocumented Mexican immigrants, some of whom were living in the United States at the time, attempted to cross the border into the country in Arizona, dressed in graduation caps and gowns. The protest was streamed live. Each of the original participants posted video messages before beginning the march and a hashtag, #BringThemHome, was created for the initiative. Upon arriving at the check-point, they requested humanitarian parole, or, failing that, asylum, claiming fear of persecution in Mexico. After 17 days of detention at Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, on August 9, the Department of Homeland Security announced that asylum was tentatively granted to all nine. Their journey is far from over, however: An immigration judge will ultimately determine whether they have the right to remain in the United States, and the ruling might not arrive for years. In the meantime, the “Dream 9” have been released until their court date is announced.

Predictably, their protest garnered a lot of media attention and caused a great deal of controversy. Dave Leopold, former national president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, claims their actions are “misguided” and somewhat pointless, as most Americans are already well aware the immigration system is flawed. Furthermore, he expressed concern that they would encourage others who do not have the support of a national organization or access to legal counsel, to do the same. Some members of the House are not so critical: 34 of them signed a letter in support of the “Dream 9,” lauding the academic achievements of the members and the unfairness of their circumstances. While this is an unconventional approach, and one that carries significant risk, it is hard not to applaud the courage of these young people. NIYA has organized a second protest of this kind on September 30, releasing a statement titled “Thirty Dreamers will ask Obama to #BringThemHome.”  The countdown to the protest has already begun on NIYA’s minimalist website.

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