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How Student DREAMers Won A Step in Immigration Reform

It is worth spending a moment to pay homage to the DREAM Act students whose extraordinary activism made change possible.

You can say that Obama was pandering for election-year purposes with his announcement last week that the government will no longer deport undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children. You can say that the new policy does not go far enough in securing thoroughgoing immigration reform. So be it. The change is nevertheless a tremendous advance that will affect some 800,000 young people who have been living in fear and uncertainty about their ability to stay in the country. And it is worth spending a moment to pay homage to the DREAM Act students whose extraordinary activism made it possible.

In case you haven't followed this issue, the DREAM Act is a piece of legislation that would give legal status and create a path to citizenship for young immigrants, some of whom have spent almost their entire lives in the United States, who are going to college or serving in the military. The bill was passed by the House in 2010, and even got fifty-one votes in the Senate, but it could not overcome a Republican filibuster.

Undaunted, student activists supporting the bill -- young people known as DREAMers -- continued to push for the legislation with a series of gutsy actions. It is their dedication that has compelled Obama's executive order, which represents an end-run around Congress. The order implements many of the practical mandates of the DREAM Act, giving legal status to young immigrants who have been in the country for more than five years and who have graduated high school, earned a GED, or enlisted in the military.

When I say the students took gutsy actions, I mean gutsy. I quote here a story from last December:

A pair of college students from Southern California recently walked into a Border Patrol office in Alabama, the state whose immigration law is considered the harshest in the nation.

Jonathan Perez, 24, and Isaac Barrera, 20, openly admitted to the federal officers on duty in Mobile, Ala., that they were undocumented. It was a brazen act of protest against what the students said were the contradictory immigration enforcement policies of the Obama administration.

Within the hour, the Pasadena City College students were arrested and swallowed up in what critics call the quagmire of immigration detention. They spent more than two weeks in custody, initially in Alabama and later at a federal detention facility in Louisiana.

Perez, who came to the U.S. from Colombia with his family when he was 3 years old, said landing in federal immigration detention last month "was about coming out of the shadows."

"We need to live without fear because the fear paralyzes us," Perez told The Huffington Post . "If we stay quiet, we stay in the shadows."

The amount of strength and resolve that Perez and Barrera displayed is jaw-dropping. Just picture yourself in that scene: you walk into a Border Patrol office ... in Alabama -- the state that scrambled to outdo Arizona in concocting reactionary anti-immigrant policies. You approach the uniformed officers at the desk. And then you declare that you are without legal status in the country where you have spent all of your adolescent and adult life. You know that such a declaration could mean dislocation from your home, friends, and family. Yet you do it anyway in order to break the silence and come forward as a spokesperson for change.

Remarkably, these students were only two of many who have taken similar actions in recent years, making the decision (in language borrowed from the gay liberation movement) to "come out" as undocumented and to use their lives and their stories as illustrations of why current immigration law is illogical and deeply unfair.