Five immigrant youth wearing graduation caps and gowns staged a peaceful sit-in Monday at the Tucson, Ariz., offices of Republican Sen. John McCain urging him to sponsor legislation that would open a path to legalization for undocumented youth.
Four of the immigrant protesters were arrested on misdemeanor trespassing charges, including three who are undocumented and are expected to face deportation proceedings.
The students said they are "undocumented and unafraid." Their sit-in was an act of civil disobedience against the recent anti-immigrant law signed by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer last month. The measure gives local police authority to question the legal status of people they suspect to be undocumented.
"There are already ten other states across the country considering immigration legislation similar to Arizona's," said Lizbeth Mateo, 25, one of the students arrested in a press release. Mateo is an organizer with an immigrant youth advocacy group called Dream Team in Los Angeles. She adds draconian measures like Arizona's are "anti-family, anti-democratic, and anti-freedom."
"Police states and enforcement are quickly becoming the standard, and we are running out of time," she said. "We are going to pass the Dream Act because it is based on freedom and equality."
McCain told the students he would meet with them to discuss the Dream Act, a bill he has sponsored in the past that would offer legalization for undocumented students who came to the U.S. as children with their parents.
However McCain, who is facing a tough primary challenge from a conservative right-wing candidate, has been mute on immigration reform this year.
The students said their decision to risk deportation highlights the urgency of millions that depend on legislative action in Congress for comprehensive immigration reform. The action should be seen as a catalyst to encourage mass grassroots mobilizations nationwide to pass the Dream Act this year, they note. They hope Democrats and Republicans will act with courage and champion the Dream Act and the values it represents - a chance for young immigrants who have lived most of their lives in the U.S. and want to receive an education in order to give back to their community.
Student Mohammad Abdollahi, 24, of Ann Arbor, Mich., is the co-founder of DreamActivist.org, a resource web portal for undocumented students.
"Never in our history has it been American to deny people their civil rights," he said. "We have decided to peacefully resist to encourage our leaders to pass the Dream Act and create a new standard for immigration reform based on education, hard work, equality, and fairness."
Supporters of the Dream Act say at least 65,000 undocumented youth graduate from high school every year and many struggle to attend college due to their legal status.
Tania Unzueta, 26, is the co-founder of the Chicago based Immigrant Youth Justice League. "During the civil rights movement, African American students were arrested for sitting down at lunch counters," she said. "We've been detained for standing on a sidewalk. We can't wait any longer for the Dream Act to pass."
The youth led action at McCain's office is one of the first nationally recognized protests where undocumented students have directly risked deportation in an effort to prompt Congress to tackle reform. The students hope to increase pressure on national lawmakers to pass the Dream Act this year, even if Congress does not take up a broader overhaul of the broken immigration system. The student bill is currently part of a Democratic proposal for an overhaul of the system, largely written by Senator Charles E. Schumer a New York Democrat.
But immigrant rights activists say the time to pass the Dream Act is now.
"Dr. King spoke of a dream of equality overcoming fear," said student Yaraira Carrillo, 25, of Kansas City, Mo., who is a founder of the Kansas Missouri Dream Alliance.
"Well, the fierce urgency of our dreams has overcome any kind of fear we may have had before," she said. "We can't wait."
Meanwhile a lawsuit was filed in federal court in Phoenix Monday by a coalition of civil rights, labor and religious groups challenging the new controversial anti-immigrant Arizona law. The coalition argues the measure is unconstitutional and would lead to racial profiling. It's the fifth suit challenging the law, which has sparked widespread protests and a national boycott of the state including international condemnation by Latin American presidents and the United Nations.
Photo: Students sit-in at Sen. McCain's Tucson office. (www.dreamiscoming.com)