FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. -- An estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants live in the United States. And most of them live in hiding. But now, a small group of mostly young people are opening up about their status. They admit -- and sometimes shout -- that they are undocumented and unafraid.
Often undocumented people who are interviewed choose to use fake names, like this man who spoke through a translator after a series of Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in Flagstaff four years ago.
"There was one night during the raids we didn’t have anything for dinner," he told me. "My 4- year-old daughter asked me, ‘dad where are you going? Don’t go because la migra (immigration) is out and they might get you. There’s some cereal there we can eat cereal. Just don’t go.’"
Alexandra Samarron, 24, once felt that way too. Samarron came to the U.S. with her mom when she was 16 to leave her abusive father and start a new life.
"We were really afraid," Samarron said. "I’m telling you, we were really afraid."
Something changed for Samarron last summer when she was asked to participate in a demonstration outside an immigration detention center in Los Angeles. It was the day President Barack Obama announced a two-year reprieve from deportation for young immigrants who came to the U.S. before the age of 16.
"We were sitting in the street and we were shouting, ‘I am undocumented and I am unafraid.’ And that was very empowering because just like saying it out loud helps you and it gives you power," Samarron said. "Each time I said it, it seemed that I was saying it louder. And it gives you a sense of being proud."
Over the last few years the debate over immigration reform has gotten louder. Protests have been spurred by Arizona’s SB1070 or “show me your papers” law. About the same time young immigrants also rallied, marched and held hunger strikes for a federal DREAM Act. The legislation would have provided a path to citizenship for college students who came to the U.S. as children. The unafraid movement grew out of desperation when the DREAM Act failed in Congress.
These students say Deferred Action isn’t enough. Today they’re fighting for something much bigger -- respect for the whole immigration community. Young immigrants across the country are coming out in places that draw attention -- outside state capitol buildings, immigration courts, even inside ICE offices.
So far, activists say, arrests have been made during these acts of civil disobedience, but no one has been deported, according to Salon.
"I think the risk is really low," said Matt Poirier, an attorney specializing in immigration law in Flagstaff. "The executive branch of the government, they’ve placed a extremely low priority on the removal of young immigrants who do not have any criminal history. But there’s still a law in place that says that if you’re here without permission you’re subject to removal."
Pourier said undocumented immigrants with a criminal record -- especially one that’s violent or involves drugs -- are taking a great risk. With or without a rap sheet, the vast majority are still keeping their status a secret. Alexandra Samarron’s record is clean, but she still has her mom to contend with.
"She’s always telling me ‘Alexandra, when are you going to stop helping people and just help yourself?’" Samarron said. "So sometimes she gets really bothered by that. My community is what keeps me going."
Samarron said she’s chosen to come out about her status for her mother, who she said shouldn’t feel guilty for bringing her to the United States.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Portions of this story were originally reported by Salon. It is our policy to give full and accurate attribution in all of our news stories. We regret our failure to do so in this case.