In July of 2013, nine Mexican nationals awaited just over the fence from Nogales, Arizona, preparing to attempt to return legally to their childhood homes—cities across the U.S. where they grew up as Americans in every sense except the legal definition. Several had been deported in the year leading up to the July 22 crossing.
Others had voluntarily departed from the U.S. to join in the demonstration. And while the DREAM 9’s name was coined in honor of the DREAM Act, not all were members of the youngest generation of undocumented immigrants with the dream of an education, a career and citizenship. Claudia Amaro, 37, looked forward to the opportunity to return home to her son and mother.
Migration breaks up families and multi-generational homes daily. Leaving one’s home country most often means leaving parents, siblings, grandparents. Deportation of undocumented immigrants south of the U.S.-Mexico border can either break up a family or reunite one, sometimes both.
The event at the fence between Nogales, Ariz., and Sonora, Mexico was not only for the purpose of re-entry. The nine DREAMers also wanted to raise awareness of the people facing deportation, detention and helplessness while lost in the broken system of immigration reform.
Mohammed Abdollahi was—and still is—a key player in the DREAM 9 movement, as it has come to be called. A self-proclaimed nomad, the undocumented immigrant temporarily relocated to Nogales, Ariz., to organize support and a march in preparation for the crossing attempt.
The nine crossers and their many supporters on both sides of the physical barrier united under the chant, “undocumented and unafraid.” Each claimed American roots, American identity and the right to engage in and contribute to what they saw as their home communities in cities across America.
“[We have spent four to five months] gathering stories, trying to look at all the options they have and this is what we came down to, unfortunately, having to present themselves [at the Nogales border point] and wait for the [Obama] Administration to make a decision,” Abdollahi explained.
Those involved in preparing for the DREAM 9 cross knew that no laws or regulations were in place to address undocumented persons who qualified under DACA and the DREAM Act, had been deported regardless, and who wanted to return to their homes in America legally. The days of preparation the nine Dreamers spent just across the border in Sonora was focused mostly on organizing within detention facilities—with special attention to maintaining mental health and willingness to survive and even prosper if (and ultimately when) they were imprisoned.
“Once you’re in detention, there’s an environment of everyone being scared and…thinking the guards have [high] power over them and really quieting them down,” Abdollahi said of the challenges to maintaining the Dreamers’ goals within detention. “There [are] a lot of abuses that happen inside that no one really shares.”
Dominic Powell, a U.S. citizen able to travel freely between Nogales, Ariz., and Sonora to coordinate messaging and press relations for the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, helped to lead the days of training meant to instill in the Dreamers legal knowledge, mental preparation and abilities to collect the stories of other detained immigrants and identify abuses within the deportation system.
“We’ve also done a lot of team building, [to] make sure they work together as a unit,” Powell said on the eve of the cross.
Working beyond the preparation for the anticipated “weeks or months” of detainment, Powell emphasized the fundamental goal of the demonstration.
“The bigger message that they should be allowed to go home and that many more should be allowed to go home is the most important,” Powell said.
The nine were apprehended and taken to detention facilities upon attempting to enter legally while trying to justify their attempt by saying their DACA eligibility—mainly based on age at entrance, proof of U.S. education and proof of continuous residence—should exempt them from deportation (even if deported in the years leading up to DACA), holding letters requesting review by the Obama Administration. Many argued the move was a substantial step in pushing the immigration discussion forward. Conversely, the argument was made that the event posed possible detriments and a setback to progress already made in immigration reform, with even immigrant rights groups and attorneys taking the adverse stance.
Dave Leopold, former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, was one of the most prominent and outspoken critics of the DREAM 9 “publicity stunt.”
Leopold doubted the lasting impact of the DREAM 9 cross would outlive—and outweigh—its possible costs to undoing some of the reform conversations already taking place.
“I’m standing back and saying, ‘Wait a minute, what is that you are trying to show? What great point was made out of this?’” Leopold told The Los Angeles Times. “We already know the immigration system is broken. In a year from now, are we even going to remember this?”
Sandra Feliz, a Phoenix-raised immigrant, disagreed on the morning of the cross.
“As allies, I think it’s our responsibility to show up and help out where the help is needed,” Feliz said, while preparing for the march through downtown Nogales to the border. “There’s been a movement for decades now, [and] families have been split up by the border.”
Guadalupe Juarez, who travelled to Nogales from San Diego for the event, described the DREAM9 cross as an opportunity to bring national attention to a fight that has existed within the undocumented community for decades.
“Mentally, we’ve been preparing our whole life for this,” Juarez said. “If people don’t…see and feel in their hearts what’s happening at the border, they’re going to be completely oblivious to the conscious decisions we would have to make as a country.”
Despite never being detained and sent back to Mexico while living in southern California for nearly two decades, Lizbeth Mateo took herself out of the U.S. and back across to her national state. By voluntarily returning to Mexico, she saw her grandparents for the first time in 15 years. Even more, she gave herself the opportunity to embody the “undocumented and unafraid” battle cry. For Mateo, the prospect of raising even the slightest discussion on the issue of youth deportations was enough for her to voluntarily depart from the U.S. and attempt to re-enter as one of the nine.
“If Congress is serious, if the Obama Administration is serious about not deporting young people, not deporting Dreamers,” Mateo said, “then he also needs to think and do something about those Dreamers that his administration has actually deported in the last five years.”
Mateo raised the question of a prevalent issue—many DACA-eligible DREAMers were or have been deported in the years preceding or following the 2012 DACA legislation—and the DREAM Act discussion has taken place. The question of their status, when the only home, family and culture they know is in the U.S., is a question often neglected, but one that could prove to become the center of attention as reform discussions move forward.
The night before she walked to the Nogales border point wearing a graduation cap and gown, her immediate request could be articulated simply.
“I’m hoping we can all go home,” Mateo said.
The Aftermath of the Cross
The five women and four men making up the DREAM 9 were held at the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona until August 4, when they were released on parole after immigration asylum officers determined each had credible fear of persecution in their birth country, and could not be returned immediately. An immigration judge will hear their cases before deciding to grant asylum—however, it could be years before they are processed through the system and seen before a judge. For now, the nine DREAMers are allowed to remain in the country, and most have returned to their families in various cities, from Phoenix to Boston.
According to State Department’s 2012 Asylum Statistics report, barely 1 percent of asylum requests by Mexican nationals are granted. The question of refugee status and credible fear of prosecution being extended to native Latinos caught in the middle of economic devastation and violent drug wars is one still without an answer. Meanwhile, many applicants struggle to wait for those policies to change.