Civil Disobedience: Undocumented Youth Risk Deportation in Push for Immigration Reform

Dream Act Protesters Mohamed, Lizbeth, Tania and Shaira in Tucson, AZ - Photo: Valeria Fernandez

Dream Act Protesters Mohamed, Lizbeth, Yahaira and Tania in Tucson, Ariz. (Photo: Valeria Fernandez)

TUSCON, Arizona—Facing deportation is part of the daily reality for hundreds of thousands of students who live in the U.S. without legal documents. That’s why Yahaira Carrillo says she didn’t hold back from putting herself on the line in a recent civil disobedience demonstration. The peril of deportation has always been there for her.

The protest on Monday began with Carrillo and four other students: Mohammad Abdollahi, Tania Unzueta, Lizbeth Mateo and Raúl Alcaraz. They entered Sen. John McCain’s office in this Arizona city, and refused to leave at the close of business hours. Unzueta, who is undocumented, exited the building willingly to become a spokesperson for the group.

Their act of civil disobedience was planned knowing that deportation could be the outcome, in the hope of drawing attention to the “Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.” This legislation has floated around Congress for many years, and was formally reintroduced in 2009 by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Il). It would allow undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before the age of 16 to legalize their status by pursuing higher education or entering the armed services.

At the end of the day, the four young people were arrested by the Tucson Police Department, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) placed a hold on them. They were released Tuesday evening, and with the exception of Alcaraz, who is a legal resident, they now face deportation court proceedings.

“If I have to leave I will do it with my head held up high, knowing that I did everything I could,” said Carillo on Wednesday.

The sit-in occurred the day before a large coalition of immigrant rights groups announced a national campaign of civil disobedience that they hope will put an end to deportations, block Arizona’s tough new immigration law known as SB 1070 and force the federal government to take concrete steps toward immigration reform. A major event is scheduled for May 29th, a day advocates are calling the National Day of Solidarity with Arizona.

“There are several diverse tactics all over the country to be observed over the next month,” said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change (CCC),in a teleconference with the media on Tuesday.

Bhargava said civil disobedience would take the form of blocking detention centers, sit-ins in front of offices of lawmakers opposed to immigration reform and demonstrations at federal buildings and corporations with substantial business in Arizona.

Bhargava himself was arrested, along with Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Il.) and 33 others in an act of civil disobedience on May 1st. They staged a sit-in on the sidewalk outside the White House at a rally calling for national immigration reform.

The advocates said they are aware that high-profile acts put undocumented immigrants at risk of arrest and subsequent deportation, and the students in Tucson were given legal advice beforehand.  Mary Moreno, a spokeswoman for the Center for Community Change, said the students chose to take the risk in order to increase political pressure for the DREAM Act.

“People know what they’re getting into,” Moreno told FI2W.

Yahaira Carrillo - Photo: Valeria Fernandez

Yahaira Carrillo, an undocumented student who protested at Sen. McCain’s office on Monday. (Photo: Valeria Fernandez)

Carrillo, 25, was brought to the U.S when she was 8 years old by her mother, who was almost Carillo’s age now.

She discovered early on that lacking documents was going to limit her education. For the past seven years she has worked to obtain a bachelor’s degree.  As an undocumented student it has been expensive, since she is required to pay out-of-state tuition. But she hasn’t given up on her dream of becoming a teacher. In a way, she sees herself in that role already, towards younger students who are also undocumented and are starting to walk on the challenging path of getting a higher education.

When Carrillo worked on the Obama presidential campaign she was inspired by his support for the DREAM Act. But she is disappointed now at what she calls “political games” that are delaying the passage of this law.

The four students that participated in the protest at Sen. McCain’s office are leaders in the DREAM Act movement, and came from different parts of the country, from Kansas to California. The students targeted McCain—a former supporter of the DREAM Act—to press him to sponsor it in Congress this year. They chose Tucson rather than Phoenix (where McCain has offices as well) as the site of their civil disobedience because it has been a place where youth have been active and empowered for years.

“Youth here [in Tucson] have made their presence visible,” Carillo said.

Over the past couple of weeks, young people in Tucson have organized several acts of civil disobedience focused on HB 2281, a new state law that will ban ethnic studies programs in public and charter schools. The bill was created to target a Chicano studies program in the Tucson Unified School District.

Lizbeth Mateo, 25, one of the students who was arrested on Monday, believes that ICE didn’t keep them in detention because they recognized it was bad publicity.  She said the support they got from the student community in Tucson also made a difference for their release.

Carrillo said they would stay in the city for a couple of weeks supporting other students actions and would continue to organize through the website

“I’m really excited right now, with this action we accomplished what we were hoping to accomplish. And it’s just a building block. We want people to take leadership on the DREAM Act. We are seeing now youth step up, “ said Abdollahi, who is an undocumented immigrant from Iran. “We see the DREAM Act as becoming a reality soon.”

Cristina DC Pastor contributed reporting for this story from New York.

Avatar photo
AboutValeria Fernández
Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist from Uruguay with more than a 14 years experience as a bilingual documentary producer and reporter on Arizona’s immigrant community and the US-Mexico borderlands. She co-directed and produced "Two Americans,” a documentary that parallels the stories of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and a 9-year-old U.S. citizen whose parents were arrested by the sheriff’s deputies that aired in Al Jazeera America. Her work as reporter for the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting on the economic and social impacts of a mine spill in Northern Mexico broadcast in PBS, San Diego and won an Arizona Press Club recognition for environmental reporting in 2016. She freelances for a number of print, digital and broadcast media outlets, including Feet in 2 Worlds, CNN Español, Radio Bilingue, PRI's Global Nation, Al Jazeera, and Discovery Spanish.