Capitol's Immigration Stagnation Gets Dreamers Moving On The Border

With deportations at a record high under the Obama administration, and with immigration reform stalled in Congress, Dreamer protest groups are trying to keep the issue alive with actions of their own.

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The number of undocumented immigrants deported under the Obama administration is expected to hit two million this month. That is more than under any previous president. The leader of the nation's largest Latino advocacy group now calls President Obama the deporter-in-chief, and the president has set up a task force to evaluate the approach to deportation. But it is clear that an overhaul of the country's immigration policy is stalled in Washington, and advocates are trying to keep the issue alive on their own.

NPR's Kelly McEvers reports from the U.S.-Mexico border.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We don't need everybody to hold posters. We're going to need some clapping. We need some singing. Everybody needs to be on this.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: It's a hot morning in the parking lot at the IHOP in this desolate stretch of desert south of San Diego. About a hundred protesters form a circle and practice their songs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: The plan is to walk down this road, past the 7-Eleven and the taco joints and up to the gates and checkpoints that form the Otay-Mesa border crossing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: There they'll watch as 35 people who left the U.S. for Mexico - either because they were deported or because they were afraid of being deported - try to cross back into the U.S..

The event was organized by the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, a sometimes controversial group of mostly undocumented students that stages protests around the country. The latest image the group wants to portray is families, families who've lived in the U.S. but were split up by deportations, says Enrique Morones, founder of a group called Border Angels.

ENRIQUE MORONES: The majority of the country without a doubt has no idea that this is going on. They don't know that families are being separated right now.

MCEVERS: The tactic at this protest of trying to cross people back into the U.S. started with the Dream 9 protest last summer in Arizona. Maria Peniche was one of them. In 2012, her parents' employers said they would start checking papers. So the family left the U.S. and went back to Mexico City on their own. There, Maria Peniche says a relative tried to sexually assault her.

MARIA PENICHE: And I told everyone what he was trying to do. And he didn't like that. So after a week of the incident, I started being followed in and out of my home by strange men and by police, Mexican police officers.

MCEVERS: So Peniche joined up with other activists who were already in Mexico or who came back to Mexico. The so-called Dream 9 showed up at a border crossing and claimed asylum. They've all been released into the U.S., where they await final hearings. The next action was 30 more people trying to cross last fall - same strategy, same result. Maria Peniche's brother came with that group. Her parents are in this latest group trying to cross back into the U.S. She says they were afraid to stay in Mexico.

PENICHE: It's scary not knowing if, just because your mom didn't answer your last message on Facebook last night, it was because they came in and raided their home. So now, I'd rather have them safe in a detention center instead of worrying about them every single day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MCEVERS: After the speeches, the protesters march up to a bridge overlooking the border crossing, where uniformed customs officers stop and search every car and pedestrian coming through the checkpoint.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

MCEVERS: They celebrate when they see Maria Peniche's parents and the others walk up to customs agents, get handcuffed and head into a temporary holding area.

The protesters' tactic is for some of these 35 people to ask for asylum, and for others to apply for something called humanitarian parole which could let them rejoin their families in the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

MCEVERS: The protesters say that with the immigration reform bill that passed the Senate last summer, now stalled in Washington, immigration reform starts here. They say they're bringing people back into the U.S. on their own. In the days that follow, they'll try to cross dozens more.

It's a tactic that has some in the movement worried. First, because it's hard to be granted asylum in the U.S. And second, they say because putting people in sticky legal situations could be considered unethical.

David Leopold is a prominent immigration lawyer. He says what protesters should do is focus on Republicans who won't bring the Senate's immigration bill to the House floor.

DAVID LEOPOLD: Immigration reform would be the law of the land if it weren't for three people.

MCEVERS: House speaker John Boehner, he says, and the other two Republican House leaders.

LEOPOLD: So the focus at the moment is to get the House of Representatives to do something and stop delaying.

MCEVERS: As midterm elections approach, Leopold says that means protesters should hit their representatives where it hurts.

LEOPOLD: Whether it's a sit-in in John Boehner's office or why not target districts where there's some vulnerability, and try to get some people in there who are going to vote in favor of immigration reform. To me, that is the harder work. That is the grassroots work.

MCEVERS: The protesters do admit that even if they get a few hundred people back into the U.S., it's no match for the two million who have been deported.

As for those 35 people, including Maria Peniche's parents who tried to cross last week, four children were allowed into the U.S., one adult was deported back to Mexico and the rest of the adults are awaiting hearings in temporary detention at the border.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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