Dulce Guerrero had lived with a stressful secret for years and was finally ready to share it with the world.
She opened up in front of dozens of friends, strangers and camera-wielding journalists who had gathered for an immigrant rights demonstration two years ago in downtown Atlanta. The Cobb County woman’s secret: She was living illegally in the United States.
Guerrero is a polarizing figure in the debate over illegal immigration. For some people, the Pebblebrook High School graduate is a brave activist fighting for a righteous cause. For others, she is an irritating lawbreaker seeking objectionable changes in state and federal immigration policies.
Guerrero, now 19, is among the nation’s “Dreamers,” immigrants who were illegally brought to the United States when they were children. Many like Guerrero are using controversial tactics to bring attention to their cause. Among them are “coming-out” events such as the one Guerrero joined in downtown Atlanta.
Last year, the Dreamers — who take their name from the DREAM Act, which would have given them a pathway to legal status — pushed hard on the Obama administration to stop deporting young immigrants like them. The government’s decision to allow many of them to stay here has infuriated immigration watchdogs, who worry they will burden taxpayer-funded resources. Now the Dreamers are gearing up for another big fight as President Barack Obama seeks to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, a priority he highlighted in his inaugural address Monday.
Some immigrants, such as Guerrero, are adopting civil disobedience tactics used during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Last year, they staged sit-ins in Obama’s campaign offices and marched. Guerrero, for example, has been arrested on charges related to intentionally blocking traffic in downtown Atlanta. Such disruptive tactics are drawing sharp criticism in Georgia.
“While I am empathetic with their plight and understand they were brought here as children, I cannot get around the fact of their continuing to break the law,” said Catherine Davis, a former congressional candidate from Stone Mountain and an outspoken advocate for enforcing the nation’s immigration laws.
More news conferences and rallies are in the works across the nation. Dreamers are also seeking to get locked up in immigration detention centers in Georgia and other states so they can expose deportation cases they want the government to halt.
Immigrants used to keep quiet about their legal status because of the threat of deportation. Many are now going public to call attention to the record numbers of deportations under the Obama administration.
At Guerrero’s coming-out in April 2011, she told the large crowd: “I have been living in fear for 16 years, not knowing what is going to happen to my family, and I am tired of it.”
When the DREAM Act failed in Congress in 2010, the Dreamers didn’t give up. They met with legal scholars. And out of that meeting came a letter outlining the legal precedents for the White House putting something like the DREAM Act in place without congressional approval. Scores of immigration law professors signed the letter and sent it to Obama on May 28. Less than three weeks later, the Obama administration announced it was offering young immigrants such as Guerrero a two-year reprieve from deportation and authorization to work in the United States.
As of Jan. 17, 407,899 immigrants have applied for the reprieve. Among them are Guerrero and 13,146 others from Georgia.
Obama administration officials credited Dreamers with helping bring attention to their plight. But the deportation deferral program, they said, evolved from the government’s years-long efforts to refocus enforcement on violent criminals and homeland security threats.
That program is now deeply unpopular among those who opposed the DREAM Act.
“It sends a very dangerous signal to Americans coast to coast that their electioneering and lobbying efforts are passe under (Obama’s) regime,” said William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration, a political action committee that advocates for the enforcement of federal immigration laws.
Dreamers cheered the program and then enthusiastically worked to re-elect Obama. Ineligible to vote because of their legal status, they urged friends and relatives to support the president over Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who said he would have vetoed the DREAM Act. Obama captured 71 percent of the Hispanic vote, prompting Republicans to reconsider their platform on immigration.
But Dreamer groups — including United We Dream and the National Immigrant Youth Alliance — are not satisfied and are pushing for more substantial changes.
“This year the administration and Congress have to deliver on a pathway to citizenship, which is a permanent solution for our communities,” said Cristina Jimenez, the managing director of United We Dream.
Guerrero’s is on the front lines of this fight in Georgia. Her parents paid a smuggler to illegally bring her and her older brother here from Mexico when she was 2 years old. The family settled in Mableton.
Guerrero revealed her legal status a month before she was to graduate from Pebblebrook. She and the others were demonstrating in favor of the DREAM Act and protesting a ban on illegal immigrants attending certain state colleges in Georgia.
Two months later, police arrested Guerrero and other Dreamers after they demonstrated again and blocked traffic near the state Capitol. Authorities dismissed misdemeanor charges against Guerrero after she completed community service.
Guerrero has stayed busy since then, traveling to Arizona, Florida and Ohio and teaching others how to fight deportation. Last month, she and others demonstrated outside Pebblebrook in support of another young illegal immigrant facing deportation, Fredi Alcazar Dominguez.
Guerrero — who dreams of becoming an attorney or social worker some day — said sharing her secret has brought her some solace. She said she feels unburdened.
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