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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And let's dig into an issue that has been on the national agenda for some time and will likely make plenty of headlines in the coming year. It's the fight to overhaul the nation's immigration laws. Turns out undocumented students have played a huge role in the movement for change. And as lawmakers from both parties resume talks on federal legislation, student leaders are expanding their fight for legal residency and student rights.

Today we meet one of the leaders of that movement. NPR's Mandalit del Barco has the profile.

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: Unlike many undocumented immigrants, Sofia Campos is not afraid to give her real name.

SOFIA CAMPOS: Yeah, it's deliberate and it's liberating, I think. Not just for me but for others. It's kind of a shock to hear somebody say I am undocumented or wear the I Am Undocumented T-shirt, right, just in your face.

BARCO: The 23-year-old is a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles, and she heads United We Dream, a national network of youth-led immigrant organizations. This year, their movement scored a victory with President Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. DACA allows undocumented students works permit for two years. Sophia says it's just one step in their fight for legal status, even though some may not think they're deserving.

CAMPOS: That hateful language, you know, like illegal like alien, wetback, leach. People were talking about my brother, my sister, my mom, and my dad and it was like how could these people that don't know me at all, don't know my family, don't know the love that exists within my family, right, how can you be so - just hateful?

BARCO: Sofia says that's why it's important for undocumented students to tell their stories. Hers began in Lima, Peru, where she was born. In 1996, in the aftermath of the Sendero Luminoso terrorism, her parents moved the family to California.

CAMPOS: I was six, my brother was about four; my sister was three, I think.

BARCO: In high school she played volleyball, ran track, and was in student government. With top grades, Sophia was accepted into UCLA. But to apply for scholarships, she needed a Social Security number, something she didn't have. At that point her mother, Gladys Campos, revealed a secret. They had overstayed their tourist visas.

GLADYS CAMPOS: We were ashamed of being here illegally. We were so scared to be doing something wrong.

CAMPOS: I was angry at first that she hadn't told me. But I understand why they did that. It was to protect us for as long as they could, like any parent would do with their child.

BARCO: At that time, in 2007, undocumented students in California couldn't get state scholarships. So Sophia's parents poured every penny of their savings to pay for her first quarter at UCLA. After that she had to work odd jobs for the student fees, as much as $5,000 every 10 weeks. To earn her double major in international developmental studies and political science, she commuted four hours every day by bus.

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

BARCO: Sofia joined other undocumented students pushing for the California Dream Act, allowing children brought into the U.S. under the age of 16 to apply for student financial aid. After that became law last year, Sophia went to Washington, D.C. to lobby legislators for a federal Dream Act.

CAMPOS: These are thousands of students who just like me did not choose to come to the United States, but who have worked so hard to make something out of themselves.

BARCO: Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez says Sophia and the other undocumented students have presented a strong case for immigration reform.

REPRESENTATIVE LUIS GUTIERREZ: While there were adults doing it, no one quite was able to put the kind of fire and bring the kind of attention to the plight of the immigrant community as they were.

BARCO: Sofia says their mission now has now expanded to include gaining rights for their parents.

At home, in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, Gladys Campos says her daughter is a role model for her younger brother and sister, both of them now at University of California campuses, and she's inspired her as well.

CAMPOS: At the beginning I was so scared. Really I was praying every day, and I was trying to stop her. But she didn't. So right now I know that she was right. I was wrong.

BARCO: Mrs. Campos says she's no longer afraid. And not long ago she even declared her status at a church meeting.

CAMPOS: I told them, yes, I'm undocumented. My kids too. And I have too many blessings in my life. I said it openly. That was the first time, yeah.

BARCO: Sofia Campos got her Social Security card last week. Now she hopes to get into graduate school at MIT or the UC Berkeley. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

GREENE: And you can hear Mandalit's reporting right here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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