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Young immigrants take the stage

Living in the country illegally, immigrant youth want to be heard

Uriel is shy. He seldom speaks up among his friends, and when he does, he talks quietly. But on Wednesday, he will get up before a crowd to reveal something many wouldn’t say out loud. At a demonstration he helped organize, the 19-year-old will announce that he lives in the United States illegally.

“I’m not afraid to do it,” he said. “I know it’s harder for other people. It’s going to take a lot of courage and strength.”

Sitting next to Reyna, Uriel participates in a meeting organized by the Immigrant Youth Justice League. About the group's meetings, he said "For some people there, it’s the only place where they feel safe."

Uriel is part of a growing movement of well-educated youth who defy the stereotype of illegal immigrants as low-skilled workers. Often they crossed the border unlawfully as children with their parents, or overstayed visas, and have lived here most their lives. Their options to become legal residents or citizens are limited.

Having grown up in the U.S., they are now hitting a dead end, unable to find work legally, struggling to go through college and unable to plan (or pay) for their future. But unlike older immigrants who often try to stay out of the public eye, the younger generation is not afraid to be seen. Groups like the Immigrant Youth Justice League in Chicago organize demonstrations in support of immigration reform legislation such as the DREAM Act, a bill that, if passed, would allow them to become citizens under certain conditions.

While their numbers are difficult to pinpoint, it’s clear that few people living in the U.S. illegally attend college. Demographer Jeffrey Passel, in a 2003 report for the nonpartisan Urban Institute, placed the number of illegal immigrants who graduate from American high schools each year at about 65,000. The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, estimated in 2006 that about 50,000 students without legal status are enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities.

In ten states, including Illinois, these students receive in-state tuition rates if they graduated from state high schools. These provisions aren’t without controversy; In Nebraska, the in-state tuition law is currently being challenged in court.

“I don’t think there’s a lack of possible college students who are either legal permanent residents or born citizens,” said Bryan Griffith, spokesman of the Center for Immigration Studies, a research organization that favors limiting immigration.

Jessica, a Mexican-born student who came to the U.S. illegally with her parents when she was two years old, disagrees. “College was never really a question,” she said. “[It] has always been in my head, since I was really little. I knew I was going to go to college and I knew I was going to be a professional in a career.”

She graduated at the top of her high school class and is now in her first year at DePaul University. She applied to more than 20 scholarships to be able to afford tuition at the private school, around $30,000 a year.

Uriel initially hoped to attend DePaul as well, where he was offered a $5,000-a-year scholarship. He had to drop out when he couldn’t provide the social security number required to receive for financial aid. He’s now a freshman at the public Harold Washington College.

But money isn’t the only obstacle for students like Jessica and Uriel.

“The reality is that even though they have the same degree as their fellow U.S.-born students, … their possibilities are very, very limited,” said Jeanne Batalova of the Migration Policy Institute. “For these students, the only hope is for legislation like the DREAM Act or immigration reform.”

The Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act, or DREAM Act, was first introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2001 but has stalled since (In 2007, a version of it fell eight votes short of passing). Reintroduced in 2009 by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin (D), the DREAM Act would allow unauthorized immigrants under 35 to gain citizenship if they entered the country before their 16th birthday, graduated high school, and complete two years of college or military service. When another Illinois congressman, Luis Gutierrez (D-Chicago), introduced his more far-reaching comprehensive immigration reform bill in the House in December, he included the provisions aimed at the youth.

“We take position against general amnesties, which the DREAM Act is,” said Griffith. “There are legal means of [immigrating] and those who chose to do it otherwise shouldn’t be rewarded for doing so.”

Uriel’s family entered on tourist visas when he was 18 months old and stayed unlawfully. Besides that, few things about them satisfy the stereotype of unauthorized immigrants. Living in a two-story house on Chicago’s far Northwest Side, Uriel attended Walter Payton College Preparatory High School. He realized the consequences of his illegal status when he couldn’t go on the international trips the school offered. Now, more severe barriers block his future.

He hopes for the DREAM Act, which he thinks is more likely to pass than the broader reform bill. “Politicians are more inclined to help youth, students,” he said. “We’re not trying to exclude someone, we’re simply trying to be realistic.”

In Chicago, a group of young immigrants called the Immigrant Youth Justice League is leading the charge in support of reform. The group grew out of an effort to stop the deportation of Rigoberto Padilla, a University of Illinois-Chicago student. A DUI arrest alerted authorities to his illegal status and Padilla was set for deportation back to Mexico. Friends and advocates took on his case and won political support, which eventually led to a deferral. Padilla can stay another year until a review of his case. He and a few friends founded the group late last year. Most of its members, including Uriel, are college students; many of them live here illegally.

Ireri (front) takes notes while others listen at a planning meeting shortly before the March 10 demonstration.

In January, they started planning for the demonstration in downtown Chicago. Getting people out on the street is a big effort for the small group. On a recent Tuesday evening, more than 40 people filled a square room in Pilsen that usually houses the area’s chamber of commerce for their weekly planning meeting.

Folding chairs form a wide circle on the tile floor. Most participants are in their early 20s. Introducing themselves, they toss around names of organizations and Chicago-area colleges. Some add the words “I’m undocumented” to their name, using the term they prefer to describe their situation.

William Perez, who has researched young unauthorized immigrants and recently wrote the book “We Are Americans,” said they’re involved in everything from volunteering to extracurricular activities and community organizing. “Once they reach college that activism almost triples,” he said, adding that student groups have become more open. “The fear is going away.”

In Pilsen, cold winter air blows in every time someone steps into the room. Many kept their scarves or coats on – while the discussion is heated, the room is not.

José, who tonight serves as moderator, reads the agenda. To his right, Ken announces the speaking time will be a minute and a half each. Throughout the meeting, he keeps time on his cell phone, signaling those who have run over the allotted 90 seconds to end their argument.

He has to signal quite a bit – the discussion about the goals of the demonstration draws impassioned arguments. Here, the question is not what to ask for, but how much to ask for at once. “Legalization for all” is one of their demands.

Tania and others paint banners for the march

Tania smiles as she and her friends paint a banner for the planned demonstration. The green text reads "Legalization for All."

Days before the march, Tania is painting those words in green over a white banner. Uriel, José, Jessica and others are working on another one. On bright orange background, the blue words pop out: “Undocumented and Unafraid.”

Uriel is dipping his brush into the thick blue paint. He spreads the color across the N of “undocumented.” He now studies political science, but eventually wants to be a lawyer. Asked what he will do after he graduates, he says, “A lot can happen in three years.”

Uriel (back) and other members of the league paint a banner with the words "Undocumented and Unafraid."

To become a lawyer, he would not only have to go to grad school. The law itself would need to change.

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3 Comments
  1. Jose Lopez permalink

    Stop calling us illegal! We need unbiased journalism!!!

  2. curiousinchicago permalink

    It’s difficult to find the rigth words to describe undocumented/unauthorized/illegal immigrants (I actually wrote about this here: https://curiousinchicago.wordpress.com/youngimmigrants/the-words/).

    “Unbiased,” however, means neutral, not taking a side — I’d like the stories to speak for themselves, and readers to think whatever it is THEY want to take from it. I know that can’t please everyone, but I guess that’s the chance you have to take as a journalist.

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