From left, Dayanna Rebolledo, Maria Marroquin, Andrea Rosales and four… (David Goldman, Associated…)
Reporting from Atlanta — Seven college-age Latinos gathered in downtown Atlanta and passed around a microphone, announcing to the world that they were coming out of the shadows as illegal immigrants.
Then, in an act of civil disobedience, they sat down in the middle of a busy street and announced it again to a large and chanting crowd. When they were hauled off to jail, they even declared their status to a pair of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers — who proceeded to do nothing.
Wednesday, after a night in jail, the seven were free again, clutching misdemeanor tickets issued by the city for blocking traffic.
So what, one might ask, does it take for an illegal immigrant to get deported in the United States of 2011?
That turns out to be a good question, particularly for immigrants who, like the Georgia youths, call themselves "the Dreamers" — that is, immigrants who might have achieved legal status through the federal Dream Act.
The legislation would have offered a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who were brought to the United States at a young age, had lived here for at least five years, had stayed out of trouble and enrolled in college or served in the military.
The bill passed the House of Representatives in December, but was scuttled in the Senate by Republican-led opposition.
With the bill dead for the foreseeable future — especially given the new GOP majority in the House — the Obama administration appears to be operating in a kind of workaround mode.
At an April 1 public forum in Washington, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that immigrants who would have benefitted from the Dream Act were "not the priority" when it came to enforcing immigration law.
Well before her comments, administration officials had said they would focus deportation efforts on those who commit serious crimes. But some immigrant rights groups have complained that the administration has been too aggressive in deportations. The Obama administration deported 392,862 people in the last fiscal year, up from 369,221 people deported in the last full year of the Bush administration.
When an Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman was asked to comment on the agency's inaction after the Atlanta protests, he simply referred to Napolitano's April 1 comments.
As policy statements go, it is a rather ambiguous one. Does it mean that no Dreamers will be deported? Or that some of them will? Gillian M. Christensen, an agency spokeswoman in Washington, declined to elaborate.
Anti-illegal-immigration groups are predictably perturbed. The New American, a John Birch Society newsmagazine, declared in a recent headline that the "Unpassed" Dream Act was "Now the Law."
"Obama has apparently passed his own de facto Dream Act, and disregarded the will of Congress," said D.A. King, head of the Dustin Inman Society, a Georgia-based anti-illegal-immigration group. "I'd like to know which federal laws I can ignore without punishment."
But the Dreamers are frustrated as well. Mohammad Abdollahi, 25, a co-founder of thedreamiscoming.com and one of the organizers of the Atlanta protest, said he believed that many young people were still subject to detention and deportation.
"Just because they stayed away from [the Atlanta] case because it was a more public case doesn't show that they're staying away from undocumented youth," said Abdollahi, who was brought to the U.S. illegally at age 3 from Iran. "The whole notion of not deporting Dreamers is just a lie on the Obama administration's part."
Even so, Abdollahi said his group was urging immigrant youth to publicly declare their illegal status, in part because it appeared that the Obama administration was handling the more public cases with kid gloves.
"The more out there you are, the more public you are, the safer you really are," he said.
Some of the young Latinos who spoke out in Atlanta said they were aware that the strategy may be risky. A less sympathetic person could win the presidency in 2012.
Still, they said they had to implore other illegal youths to come out; they could not build a political movement with a population in hiding.
Their own public declarations Tuesday were directed at Georgia education officials' decision to bar illegal immigrants from being admitted to the state's five most selective public colleges beginning in the fall.
The coming-out also served as a catharsis. "I am undocumented and I am unafraid!" said Viridiana Martinez, 24, of North Carolina, who came to the United States from Mexico at age 7. "We're people. We want to go to school, and we want to be doctors and lawyers and nurses."
To similarly situated youth, she said, "Come out — the courage is in you!"
The group's Atlanta protest was the first in which participants were arrested since the bill's defeat in December. Abdollahi said it would not be the last.