"Dream 9" members, in gowns from left, Maria Peniche, Lizbeth… (Cindy Carcamo / Los Angeles…)
TUCSON — Lizbeth Mateo won't be late for her first day of law school after all — despite weeks in a federal detention center after protesting U.S. immigration policy. She and other members of the "Dream 9" were freed Wednesday while they pursue U.S. asylum.
Born in Mexico, Mateo, 29, has spent most of her life in Los Angeles. On Monday, she is to begin studies at Santa Clara University School of Law. Now she's even more determined to succeed.
"I am absolutely ready to go to law school," Mateo said.
Moments earlier, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials had released her and the other members of the Dream 9 from Eloy Detention Center in Arizona, allowing them to return to their American communities until they can argue their case in court. They take their name from the Dream Act, which would provide a path to legalization for immigrants like them who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
The nine were transported by bus about 60 miles south to Tucson, where immigrant rights activists and news crews awaited them.
"You're here!" someone shouted. Some of the freed activists and their supporters cried.
The five women came off the bus first. They wore graduation gowns and mortar boards, the same attire as when they were arrested last month while trying to cross from Mexico back into the U.S. Next came the four men, dressed in street clothes.
It could take several years before any of them get their day in court, said the group's attorney, Margo Cowan. They hope some sort of immigration relief will become law before then, she said.
The Dream 9 staged a brazen protest at the Nogales, Ariz., port of entry to draw attention to the more than 1 million people deported under the Obama administration. When they tried to reenter the U.S. on July 22, they were arrested, and they had been in federal custody ever since.
In the detention center, Mateo said she spoke to several people like her.
"I want the government to recognize that there is a group of people, Dreamers, who grew up in this country and belong here because these are their homes," Mateo said. "They shouldn't have to go through what we went through. They should come home."
Immigration asylum officers decided this week that all nine had credible fear of persecution or torture in their birth country, Mexico, and could therefore not be immediately deported. They received temporary parole into the U.S.
Now their cases go to an immigration judge. Experts say 98% of Mexican asylum cases are denied.
Mateo, Marco Saavedra of New York and Lulu Martinez of Chicago voluntarily crossed into Mexico before trying to reenter the U.S. as an act of protest. The other six were attempting to return after leaving for Mexico more than a year ago for various reasons.
Maria Peniche, 22, left a year ago to live in Mexico City. She came to the U.S. legally when she was 10, she said, and overstayed her visa. In Boston, Peniche said, she worked three jobs to pay for college and grew frustrated that there was no immigration relief in sight.
She left three days before the Obama administration announced a deferred action program, which allows people who were brought into the country illegally as children to stay in the U.S., at least for two years.
Life in Mexico was difficult, Peniche said; she was targeted because she'd lived so long in the U.S. She was relieved to be free, and grateful to be back in the U.S., she said. "It's amazing. I feel like I have so much freedom here. I can be myself and not be afraid," she said.
Martinez, 23, was brought to the U.S. at age 3. She said she endured her recent detention by thinking of her family.
"Just being there waiting, I thought of … coming home to my family," she said.
But the "Dream 9" members aren't done protesting. A couple hours after their release, they went back to Eloy Detention Center, where they held a vigil and a rally for those still inside.