United We Stand

They're called the Dream 9 — young men and women who were brought into the country when they were children but who returned to Mexico, their birthplace, and then attempted to re-enter the United States last summer.

They didn't cross under the cover of darkness. They didn't hike for days through the treacherous desert terrain along the Arizona-Mexico border. They didn't hire a coyote to smuggle them across the border under the floorboards of a windowless van.

Instead, in a show of protest against the mass deportations executed under President Obama's administration and to test federal immigration policies, the group crossed a pedestrian bridge and presented themselves in July to federal immigration agents at the Nogales port of entry.

Among them was Adriana Diaz, 22, born in Mexico City but brought to Phoenix by her parents when she was 4 months old. The bright, artistic young woman and her family had returned to the country of her birth "because she was tired of living in fear under [Maricopa County Sheriff Joe] Arpaio, not knowing each night if her mom was going to come home," reported KVOA, a Tucson television station.

Arpaio and his deputies engaged in racial profiling during "crime-suppression sweeps" that targeted Latino neighborhoods, raided businesses to arrest undocumented workers, and encouraged residents to report immigrants suspected to be here without papers.

Diaz wanted to return to Phoenix because she was considered a foreign student in Mexico and had difficulties pursuing a higher education, the Tucson station reported.

The activists were locked up for a couple of weeks at an immigration detention center in Eloy. An attorney representing them sought asylum for her clients, and they were eventually released after they convinced immigration officials that they had a "credible fear" of persecution if they remained in Mexico.

A few months after the Dream 9 arrived in Nogales, another group, known as the Dream 30, showed up at a Texas port of entry. A third, larger group of Mexican nationals who once had lived in the States with their families also banded together in a show of unity and protest as they sought asylum in the U.S.

David C. Bennion, a Philadelphia attorney who represents many of these individuals, says his clients are seeking asylum for various reasons.

Some came from states plagued by rampant cartel violence, like Sinaloa, Michoacan, Veracruz, and Guerrero. Because of their known ties to the United States — identified by their accents, appearance, or by word of mouth — several were victims of extortion or threats by the police in Mexico. Others had relatives who were kidnapped or murdered. Some experienced persecution because they are gay or because of their political activities.

Although none has been granted asylum yet, almost all the border-crossers in the first two groups were allowed to remain here while their applications moved through the process. Six of them were deported.

Not all asylum seekers are as fortunate.


Mexican nationals with strong ties to the United States who have participated in group crossings are part of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance's "Bring Them Home" campaign.

As the world watches their high-profile and gutsy stands at ports of entry, Alliance members have an advantage of political pressure and strength in numbers.

However, many others languish in the system.

Those who are all but invisible and are seeking refuge in the States are forced to spend months in holding cells before federal officers arrive to conduct what's known as a "credible fear" interview. They have to convince the officers of their legitimate expectations that, if returned to their home countries, they will be persecuted or tortured.

Seeking asylum while detained is referred to as a "defensive" application. That is, the request for asylum is a person's defense during removal proceedings.

As recently as October 2013, says Regina Jefferies, an immigration attorney in Phoenix, she saw detained applicants waiting, in some cases, six to seven months for such a conference.

The closest asylum office is in Los Angeles, and it's from there that immigration officials are dispatched to interview asylum-seekers in Arizona.

"That's what so difficult for people," Jefferies says. "If they have no criminal history, no negative immigration contacts, it doesn't matter. They automatically have to be detained in almost every case."

She says, "They're stuck. They've fled horrific things at home only to be caught up in a system where they have to be detained. They're caught in limbo."

And getting an audience with an asylum officer is nearly always a prerequisite for a defensive application — and only if the officer deems there is credible fear can an individual continue the process.

Those not in custody and already in the country go through an "affirmative" asylum process. Neither immigration status nor how long a person has been in the U.S. matters, but he or she must apply for asylum within one year of the most recent arrival.

Jefferies, who primarily represents clients who aren't detained, says the rule often further complicates the process for immigrants because many don't even know they qualify for asylum.

"[An asylum request] is really one area where people need legal representation, and it should be provided to them," she says.

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