TUCSON, Ariz.–Dressed in blue graduation caps and gowns, four students were arrested Monday evening at Sen. John McCain’s office as they called for passage of legislation to assist immigrant students wanting to attend U.S. colleges.
Tucson police arrested and booked the youth on trespassing charges and took them to the Pima County Jail. Federal Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) placed a detention order on three who are undocumented immigrants.
“We’re putting ourselves on the line, for people we really believe in,” said Mohammad Abdollahi, 24, an undocumented immigrant from Iran, who was arrested. He lives in Ann Arbor, Mo., and is the co-founder of DreamActivists.Org.
“This is not about us,” he said. “This is about the hundreds of thousands of young people who have the same dream, and we want to provide them with the same opportunity.”
The protestors were calling on McCain to support the Dream Act, a bill that would allow youth who enter the country illegally before age 16 to legalize their status by continuing to pursue higher education or enrolling in the military.
Abdollahi said his education was interrupted due to his immigration status. He cannot return to Iran, he said, because he is gay and there homosexuality is punishable by death. Before his arrest, he said he would be willing to stay in a detention center for as long as takes for the Dream Act to pass.
The students’ action was the latest act of civil disobedience nationally and among the first in Arizona lead by undocumented immigrant youth, coming as a national coalition headed by Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM) announced similar actions across the nation.
“They are elevating the reality that at the end of the day, they have to expose to the nation what’s happening to them, and it might just mean that they would be deported,” said Angelica Salas, director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA). Salas called the student’s actions “inspirational” and said “that really compels us and the nation to act urgently because the need is great.”
The students targeted McCain, a former Dream Act supporter, to ask him to sponsor it in Congress. Flavia de la Fuente, a spokesperson for the group, said they were considering meeting with McCain after his staff expressed his interest.
“It is their right to peacefully protest,” said McCain spokesperson Brooke Buchanan in a prepared statement. “Sen. McCain understands the students’ frustrations, but elections have consequences and they should focus their efforts on the president and the Democrats that control the agenda in Congress,”
McCain, who is running for re-election, previously pushed for comprehensive immigration reform. But with J.D. Hayworth, a hardliner calling for border militarization, as his primary opponent, McCain has now called for border security without legalization.
The day of the protest, McCain issued a press release calling on Pres. Barack Obama to deploy the National Guard to the southern border.
“We feel he’s playing politics with the lives of our communities. For the purpose of being a politician, he’s taking an anti-immigrant stance when we know that in the past he has supported undocumented youth,” said Lizbeth Mateo, 25, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico. She is an organizer with DREAM Team Los Angeles, Calif., who was also arrested.
All students are activists who have been involved with coalitions in Illinois, Michigan, Arizona and California. With their action they hope to inspire other undocumented students to come out of the shadows and mobilize for the Dream Act, getting involved in similar acts of civil disobedience if necessary.
“We worked, we lobbied, we faxed, we emailed, we’ve staged rallies, we’ve done interviews. We‘ve done everything and we reached the point were we can’t give anything else of ourselves,” said Yahaira Carrillo, 25, another undocumented Mexican student from Kansas, Mo., who was among the arrested. “It’s not about us anymore. It’s about the bigger movement and the community and the young people that are coming to us every day telling us that their homes are dashed, that their dreams are broken and that they don’t know how to go on.”
It is estimated that about 65,000 students graduate from high school every year and cannot pursue higher education because of their immigration status.
Protestors chose Arizona as the site of their action because of recent state laws that target undocumented immigrants and eliminate ethnic studies.
“In Arizona we’re seeing an increase in attacks, and we’re escalating our tactics,” said Raul Alcaraz, 26, a U.S. citizen and Arizonan who was arrested. “We are tired of injustice.”
The arrestees are due in court June 16 on the misdemeanor trespassing charges. When they are resolved, they would be turned over to ICE. All of them have legal representation.
“We were prepared for this,” said de la Fuente. “It’s unfortunate that our immigration system feels that they don’t belong in this country and should be treated as criminals.”