In July, two years after graduating high school in Michigan, Jose Franco sat beside the towering black Alexander Calder sculptures inside the atrium of the Hart Senate Office Building with a sign announcing his status as an undocumented immigrant. He stayed until security arrived and Capitol Police cuffed him.
Franco decided not to enroll in college immediately after high school because he knew his status made tuition unaffordable and the job market he met afterwards almost impossible to penetrate. Instead, he has spent the last two and a half years lobbying for the passage of the DREAM Act -- legislation meant to provide citizenship for undocumented youth who attend college or join the military -- risking deportation for himself and, possibly, his family, in the process.
On Saturday, pro-DREAM senators failed to get the votes needed to force a final vote on the bill. As hopes for passage faded in the last week, Franco and some other activists talked about why they went public with their stories, even knowing that their effort might not succeed, and about what having done so could mean for their futures.
“I just thought it was something that had to be done,” says Franco, who leads One Michigan, a DREAM Act activist group. “The more people that come out the better.”
He first revealed his status about a year and a half ago after other activists came out without provoking a crackdown. “It was pretty much normal,” he said. “I just needed to happen to make this more realistic to my other peers, and from there I was able to get more people involved in the DREAM Act.”
At the time, he lived in Detroit and gave presentations to high schools about immigration, a relatively low-risk situation. Then, his mom was completely supportive of his decision to come out as undocumented. But this year, shortly before he started protesting in Washington, the decision to reveal his status became much more of a family matter. “She really didn’t believe I was doing it,” said Franco. “I would mention to her every week that I was going to do it, but she would take it that I was joking around. But she would never take it seriously, so I stopped telling her. The day before the sit-in was when I told her again I was going to do it. That was when the reality hit, and she got really nervous about it, about what could happen to me.”
Fortunately for the Francos, the authorities did not act to force him from the country. In fact, the charges against him for disorderly conduct were dropped, and, thus far, his mom has not experienced any new problems.
At the University of Texas at San Antonio, four students -- all legal residents of the United States -- are on their 41st day of a hunger strike for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison's vote on DREAM (a vote they didn't get on Saturday). The four -- Yasmina Codina, a senior; Martha Quintanilla, a junior; Claudia Sanchez, a recent graduate who has returned to take extra classes; and Felipe Vargas, a doctoral student -- are refusing solid food, drinking only water and juices to keep their blood sugar at life-supportive levels. Dozens of other students from other Texas campuses have also joined the strike in varying degrees. Even after the vote, they have not stopped, and plan to continue for a few more days -- at which point they will launch behungryforchange, a nationwide hunger strike campaign that will seek to organize hundreds of students from around the country for two years of small hunger strikes.
Senior Pamela Resendiz, a political science major, was one of the 15 students who originally fasted and helped to get the UT-San Antonio strike off the ground. Undocumented herself, every day that she broadcasts her status in demonstrations, she takes the same risks that confront Franco when he shares his -- deportation, arrest, the exposure of people in her network of friends and family to increased scrutiny. On the eighth day of the San Antonio protest, Resendiz called off her fast and left for Houston. She met local groups also lobbying for DREAM, and together, on December 2nd, they visited Senator Hutchison's Houston office. Hutchison refused to meet the group.
She is able to fly easily because she has a "stay of deportation permit" -- the result of an arrest in March this year, an event that she says put her over the top to come out. “When I made that choice I knew that there were other juniors around the nation who had come out undocumented and unafraid, and I made the decision to be one of those dreamers,” she says. “I was scared, of course, when I came out. It’s something your entire life you don’t talk about, but it got to the point where not speaking about it was becoming suffocating and too much to bear.”
University of Houston law professor Michael Olivas -- a staunch supporter of the DREAM Act -- cautioned against this strategy. “It’s very courageous and it’s no small public service, but the detriments are so substantial and are so disproportionate that every time I speak to anyone on the cusp of outing themselves -- including, I might add, my own students -- I have urged them not to out themselves because the downside is they might be deported,” he said. “Even though the DOJ has said they would not deport these students, it puts them on one side of the line rather than the other.”
He added that there are smaller risks and hidden traps, too. “You might have taken out a student loan you weren’t entirely eligible for, or you might have signed a paper and applied for a benefit for which you’re ineligible,” he said. “There are detrimental consequences when you’re undocumented. [Undocumented activists] not only expose themselves, but they expose family members and supporters and other arrangers.”
Illegal immigrants in Georgia, for example, now face new regulations when applying to college after it was discovered that a Kennesaw State University student living illegally in the U.S. was paying in-state tuition.
But there is a rub. “What we started realizing as a technique is that to be more public and more out, the more safe [people] are,” says Mohammed Abdollahi, co-founder of Dreamactivist.org. “Just because, at that point, they have a whole network of people who recognize and acknowledge them and support them if something happens.”
Abdollahi's case also reflects that this issue affects students with roots in more parts of the world than Mexico. Iranian born, Abdollah is gay -- in Iran, a crime in itself. Before putting his studies on hold to dedicate his energy towards activism, Abdollahi attended Washtenaw Community College, in Ann Arbor, Mich.--and he hopes to eventually go back to a four-year university and study social work. He first came out as undocumented in 2007 in Michigan -- not long before he met Franco, his friend, and the two began campaigning together across the state. In fact, part of why Franco went public with his status was that he had seen Abdollahi’s example, seen him live comfortably in the open, and so it seemed safe.
Having community support is important for illegal immigrants. The DREAM Act, for example, requires applicants to prove good moral standing. And having a character reference in an immigration court can be the deciding factor. But no one knows for sure whether this would be enough to prevent deportations if the act is on indefinite hold.
“In terms of the retribution to families -- we’ve heard of it in the years past,” Abdollahi says. “And I'm sure it still does happen that we’re not aware of. For us to not come out, I could be stopped and be deported, but if I'm public, at least i can defend myself.”
“There are risks, of course,” says Resendiz. “But I think, like any previous movement, unless you're in that situation you don’t really understand. Unless you’re an African-American during the civil rights movement you don’t really understand the burden and weight of living like that. But those risks are going to be there regardless if you come out or not. At any point you can be detained. At any point you can be arrested.”