“It’s very exciting,” said 25-year-old Mohammad Abdollahi, a veteran protester who’s helping Guerrero. Vargas’ revelation “shows that we exist in all walks of life. Folks don’t realize how American we are,” he said.
Some in the community fear Vargas’ admission that he used false documents to get a driver’s license and a job could invite backlash, but it illustrates the difficult reality for illegal immigrants seeking to pursue their goals, Abdollahi said.
Those who come forward make themselves vulnerable, but it’s no guarantee they’ll have to leave the U.S. right away. Some have been deported despite broad support from their communities asking that they be allowed to stay. Others, like Georgia college student and cause celebre Jessica Colotl, have won at least temporary reprieves.
Mandeep Chahal, an honors student at the University of California, Davis, and her mother were granted a stay in their deportation proceedings Tuesday after Chahal, 20, campaigned on Facebook to avoid being sent back to India.
Proponents of stricter enforcement of immigration laws often concede that young people in this situation are among the most sympathetic cases but that legalizing them still raises problems.
She’s taking advice from Abdollahi and 22-year-old Georgina Perez, who have both helped organize other protests and share similar backgrounds. Abdollahi was brought to the U.S. from Iran when he was 3 and was raised in Michigan; Perez arrived with her mother from Mexico at age 2, living first in Los Angeles and then near Atlanta.
They offer Guerrero the perspective of activists willing to risk arrest — and the threat of deportation — for their beliefs. Abdollahi, who’s been organizing protests since 2009, was held briefly with three others after they staged a sit-in at Arizona Sen. John McCain’s office last year. Perez was arrested after she and six other young immigrants sat in a downtown Atlanta intersection and blocked traffic.
Deportation proceedings were begun against Abdollahi but haven’t progressed past the initial stages, while immigration authorities took no action against Perez. The Obama administration hasn’t promised not to deport young people in their situation, but Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has made it clear that they are not a priority.
Still, the threat of being forced out of the country weighs heavily on those who announce their illegal status.
“I was super nervous,” Perez said, adding: “I had to do it because in order for students to come out, they need to see something; someone needs to set the example.”
The hardest thing, she said, was when she told her mother her plans the night before the rally and her mother apologized for putting her in a difficult situation.
“It’s like you can’t really fully live your life here, and she knows that and it breaks her heart,” Perez said, choking up. “I thank her for bringing me here. I told her, ‘Don’t ever say that again. Don’t apologize.’”
Abdollahi moved to Georgia earlier this year to help organize young people who oppose a new policy that bars illegal immigrants from the state’s most competitive public colleges and universities. They’re also speaking out against the state’s new law that, among other things, authorizes law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of suspects who cannot provide identification and to detain illegal immigrants.
Guerrero reached out to Perez to ask her to give a presentation at her school on the DREAM Act, legislation that would provide a path to legalization for certain young people brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents. The bill has been introduced several times in Congress but has yet to make it through. They kept in touch and Guerrero first spoke out at the rally in March, not long after her mother’s January arrest. She spoke out again at the rally in April and also organized a walkout at her high school last month.
Her parents are extremely protective and she talks to them about how they’ve given up so much to raise her and her brothers here, she said. They’re proud of her and support her speaking out, but they’re scared, she said.
“They’ve brought me as far as they can,” she said. “It’s time for me to take my decisions and walk on my own, and if that means publicly coming out as undocumented to empower other students, that’s what I’m gonna do.”
Associated Press writer Garance Burke in San Francisco contributed to this report.