Nearly two weeks after staging what is now widely viewed in immigration circles as either a heroic act of selfless civil disobedience or a foolhardy monkey-wrenching escapade, a group of nine undocumented immigrants, ages 19 to 37 and known as the Dream 9, sit in an Arizona detention center, awaiting their uncertain fates.
The Dream 9 crossed the border from Mexico to Arizona on July 22 and were immediately arrested by federal officials and detained at a center in Eloy, Arizona.
Two of them are in solitary confinement, says their Tucson lawyer, Margo Cowan. She’s seeking the parole of all nine on humanitarian grounds, or, alternatively, a release via political asylum. In the meantime, Dream 9 strategists have pressured members of Congress to badger the Obama administration into springing the immigrants. They’ve launched fasts, prayer vigils, sit-ins, and demonstrations to bring attention to the plight of the Dream 9. They’ve also lashed back, viciously, on social media against those who have questioned the Dream 9 strategy.
So far, nothing’s worked.
At the center of the fray is a smart, charismatic activist named Mohammad Abdollahi, a 27-year-old undocumented immigrant from Iran who belongs to the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, a group that some mainstream immigration-reform advocates view as radicalized.
Like thousands of other “DREAMers,” Abdollahi was brought to the United States as a child. And like thousands of other DREAMers, he became disenchanted with the Obama administration for not living up to what they viewed as a first-term campaign promise to pass the federal DREAM Act. (The act would have given legal status to law-abiding, educated undocumented immigrants like Abdollahi, who were brought to the U.S. as kids.) Disenchantment with the president strengthened after he deported 1.7 million immigrants.
The Dream 9 move may force the president’s hand at the very time comprehensive immigration reform is languishing in the House. If the Obama administration sets the Dream 9 free, conservatives will say he’s too lax. If the Dream 9 stay in detention or get deported, the administration will be viewed by liberals as hypocritical after its vow to boot out only immigrants who break the law.
“People think this strategy is going to hurt Obama,” says Abdollahi, tongue in cheek. “But it won’t do anything more than prop up the wonderful work Obama is doing or the bad work Obama is doing.”
Abdollahi does not self-identify as either American or Iranian—he’s in a sort of identity limbo. Unlike many DREAMers, he hasn’t applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which would give him temporary legal presence in the United States. He doesn’t know why. “I have no good reason,” he says. “No political reason.”
He’s gay, and he’s come out about his sexual identity as well as his undocumented status. He’s a full-time activist, and, he says, “my family is not OK with any of it.”
In 2010 Abdollahi and four other undocumented immigrants staged a sit-in at Sen. John McCain’s Tucson office, a brave move at the time, considering the racial animus in Arizona. “We thought that was really crazy extreme,” he says. “We never, ever thought we could do something crazier than that. But the longer we organize and the more frustration we have, the more we realize we have to keep stepping it up.”
Last year, he orchestrated the infiltration of a Florida immigration detention center. Then he and his friends spent six months strategizing the current action, a plan loosely called #bringthemhome, which has resulted in the detention of the Dream 9 in Eloy.
Six of the Dream 9 were already in Mexico because they’d been deported or had returned to their native country to join family members or get schooling. The other three live in the United States but crossed the border into Mexico for the Dream 9 action.
Among the three is Lizbeth Mateo, who had participated in the 2010 McCain sit-in and is reportedly enrolled in Santa Clara University School of Law. In a video released by the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, Mateo acknowledges the risk. She says she entered Mexico “knowing that the U.S. government might not allow me to go back.”
Mateo and her two counterparts are “leverage” for the six others, says Abdollahi. It’s the way civil disobedience works, he says, likening the border-crossing action to protests during the civil-rights era. “Sometimes we have to use our bodies to make points.”
The group has used a lot of bodies to make a lot of points. For instance, last week one Dream 9 mom staged a sit-in at the office of Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, one of the most dedicated advocates for immigration reform. Abdollahi says Gutierrez had ignored the group’s “urgent requests” to help the Dream 9 get sprung. Members of Congress “need to understand” that “the community we work with is not afraid to go sit in your office. And if you’re going to arrest us for doing that, it is going to reflect on what you actually believe and how you treat the community.”
In a statement emailed to The Daily Beast, Gutierrez says, in part: “I do not agree with the actions taken by the DREAM 9 because current immigration law is not on their side. But even having said that, I am working with their attorney and trying to get them out of detention.” Gutierrez wrote a letter to the president seeking the release of the Dream 9 and spoke in their favor on the House floor.
His spokesman Douglas Rivlin maintains that the Dream 9’s “most avid supporters” are generally groups opposed to compromise in immigration legislation. “I don’t think they will be effective in stopping sensible reform moving forward any more than the restrictionists will be,” he wrote in an email.
The rationale of the Dream 9 strategy was first publicly called into question by immigration attorney David Leopold. This triggered a social-media feeding frenzy, during which a few Dream 9 advocates blasted Leopold, who is white, for his race and for profiteering on the backs of immigrants. “I’m not the issue,” Leopold says, “the issue is a dysfunctional immigration system.” He admires the “courage of the Dream 9” but calls it an “ill-conceived protest.”
A Florida immigration lawyer, Susan Pai, faced the online wrath of a few Dream 9 supporters as well after she began taking screen shots of their social-media comments and posting them to her Twitter account. She tells The Daily Beast she views some of the comments as “hate speech” against whites. (One screenshot comment involved eating white people.) The racist screed is “just as wrong as what Steve King is doing” and is aimed at derailing passage of immigration reform legislation, she says.
Abdollahi contends he “has no intentions to sabotage immigration reform” and will be happy with any change in the law that improves life for the undocumented. But on August 1, he posted on Facebook that “I am going to kill immigration reform in the most productive way this summer. y’all have seen nothing just yet.”
“We are being very timid,” he says of the Dream 9 action. The group, he explains, came to the border and asked to come into the United States for humanitarian reasons. They carried papers explaining their cases. “I mean, we’re following the law,” he says. “I don’t think we’re going far enough. In my perfect world, we’d have 2,000 or 3,000 people at the border waiting to come home and I would like to see the administration’s response to that.”