PHOENIX – Two weeks after nine young men and women approached Arizona’s southern border wearing caps and gowns and seeking asylum, U.S. immigration officials said they would back petitions allowing the “Dream 9,” as the group is known, to enter the United States legally.
The announcement came just hours before President Barack Obama gave a Tuesday speech on housing and the economy at a Phoenix high school just 50 miles from the federal detention center where this group of young people, who have ties to the United States, have been held.
The news didn’t deter a large group of activists, mainly with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), from trying to get Obama’s attention on the street outside the school, demanding that the group be admitted legally into the country and that the pace of deportations be slowed.
“So many Hispanics voted for him, waiting for (immigration) reform,” said Karen Magaña of Tucson, holding one side of a 12 foot-long banner exhorting the president to “bring them home.”
She noted that a large number of immigrants have been deported during the Obama administration: “Hearing about those torn-apart families, it’s heartbreaking.”
As of Tuesday morning, all nine had received the OK to go before an immigration judge and argue that they have a credible “fear of persecution” if they are returned to Mexico. It will be up to the judge to determine whether they are allowed to stay in the U.S.
The burden of proof is on them to convince the judge they face danger in Mexico. Some have argued that the long amounts of time they’ve spent in the United States makes them targets for organized criminals, who may believe they’re now wealthy.
On Wednesday, the Los Angeles Times reported that the group would be released and allowed to return, at least temporarily, to their communities in the United States. Their asylum cases would still take place.
The story of the “Dream 9” began in late July, when Lulu Martinez, Lizbeth Mateo and Marco Saavedra left the United States for a visit to Mexico, knowing the risk involved.
Before she left, Mateo bet on her return. She paid her tuition for a San Francisco Bay Area law school, which she hopes to attend this fall.
All three had moved to the United States from Mexico when they were young children and have lived most their lives in America. When they headed south in July, they left behind not only the comforts of home but a certain amount of protection not granted to every immigrant in the U.S. without documents.
They’re covered under the Obama administration’s DACA policy, short for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. Enacted by executive order in June 2012, DACA allows some people, who came to the U.S. as children without documents and brought by their parents, to apply to stay in this country for two years if they meet certain criteria. This path could lead to legal residency.
Martinez, Mateo and Saavedra, who all qualified for DACA, decided to put their status on the line by returning willingly to Mexico. In Mexico, they joined six others — most who had left America before DACA went into effect — in trying to return to the U.S.
Together, their hope was to call attention to immigration reform.
“Last year (immigration enforcement) went after my uncle and he was deported,” Mateo said before leaving for Mexico.
“What our family went through is what millions have gone through and it needs to stop. This administration needs to know we won’t wait for Congress to do the right thing.”
The group made national headlines arriving at the Nogales, Ariz. border crossing last month wearing academic regalia and carrying reams of papers, applications for asylum and other documents.
Immigration officials took all nine into custody and sent them to a privately-run federal detention center between Phoenix and Tucson.
There, they didn’t sit around waiting for their lawyer to take action. The activist detainees staged hunger strikes, supporters said, though federal officials denied it.
Mateo, Martinez and Saavedra have all participated in rallies and protests before. In 2010, Mateo was part of a sit-in at Arizona Sen. John McCain’s office, where she demanded immigration reform.
At the detention center, they immediately began to get to know other detainees. They gathered information about other people’s cases to pass on to support groups on the outside and distributed a toll-free hotline that provides legal advice.
They also complained about limited access to telephones and their attorney.
Out of frustration, one night at dinner, Martinez and another detainee began a protest, banging on the table.
“(We) chanted, ‘sin papeles y sin miedo,’” (without papers and without fear), Martinez said.
The account came in a disciplinary report from Corrections Corporation of America, the private company running the detention center for the U.S. government.
Supporters of the “Dream 9” obtained it from Martinez’s attorney and said the protest landed her in solitary confinement.
Viri Hernandez said the work the nine are doing inside the facility walls is invaluable. Each day, Hernandez works with the Puente Movement — “puente” is Spanish for “bridge” — helping families deal with loved one’s immigration cases and trying to stop deportations through petitions or by making their stories public.
The nine, she said, are helping to make that happen by gathering information on the inside: “They’re getting cases of people who shouldn’t be in there.”
Domenic Powell, an organizer with NIYA, said the “Dream 9” recognize the risk with this case but that taking a stand and helping others are important to them.
“For all of them, they felt the risk was worth it because they all have family over here,” he said, referring to the United States.
Michael Mello is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Ariz. He is a former staff reporter for the Orange County Register. The top photo is from the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, which added the hashtag. Equal Voice News covers immigration on a regular basis. This story has been updated to include information about the group’s release from detention.
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