PHOENIX – There was a time when Karina Galicia would change the subject when her friends brought up immigration. She worried that she would be arrested if anyone found out she was living in the U.S. illegally.
But after years of hiding it, she decided last year that telling her story would do more good than harm. She began attending immigration reform rallies, wore T-shirts with slogans demanding more rights for immigrants and largely got over her fear of being deported.
“You just start to believe enough is enough. If you don’t expose yourself, things are never going to change,” said Galicia, 23, who was brought from Mexico to Phoenix when she was 7.
Across the country, parents, workers and students who once were afraid to reveal their unlawful status are trying to shape the national immigration reform debate by sharing their stories, attending marches and sit-ins, and lobbying state and national lawmakers for expanded rights.
They said they are willing to face possible arrest and deportation if it means giving a voice to a community long in the shadows.
While small pockets of immigrant activists have been clamoring for political recognition nationwide for decades, experts said the movement has grown in size, and become more diverse, organized and well-connected in recent years amid frustration over Congress’ inaction on immigration reform. The growing influence of Hispanic voters – especially in last year’s election – has added to the momentum.
“These are youth that were educated in the American education system for the most part. Now they are doing what we teach people to do in America – stand up for your rights,” said Kevin Johnson, a civil rights professor at the University of California, Davis.
The marches and rallies stand in stark contrast to the anti-illegal immigration movement, which generally tries to sway politicians through phone calls or letter-writing campaigns. Activists said they aren’t worried that lawmakers or voters will be influenced by the emotional message from those in the country illegally.
Immigration reform critics argue extending legal rights to immigrants living illegally in the U.S. will prompt new waves of illegal immigration, create financial problems for cash-starved governments as low-income and undereducated immigrants become eligible for social benefits and increase job competition in a tough economy.
“Immigration reform is in the eye of the beholder. What they are really pushing for is amnesty of some form,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C. “It might go over well with supporters, but it’s not going to necessarily influence people or members of Congress who are opposed or even on the fence.”
On Wednesday, the size of the pro-immigrant movement will be on display at rallies around the country, including one in Washington, D.C.
The activists already claim victories nationwide, including a successful lobbying effort against a plan in North Carolina to provide driver’s licenses to immigrants with the words: “NO LAWFUL STATUS.”
They have also sought legal help and sued Michigan and Arizona over driver’s licenses for immigrants benefiting from the Obama administration’s program that gives visas to young immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before they turned 16 and have been living in the country at least five years.
The immigrant activism movement gained national attention in 2007 when President George W. Bush and a bipartisan group of lawmakers unsuccessfully tried comprehensive immigration reform. Some high school and college students who were brought to the U.S. as young children began living openly and holding rallies.
The movement gained new supporters in 2010, when Congress debated but did not pass the DREAM Act – legislation that would have granted legal status to young immigrants living illegally in the country. Another significant moment for the effort came last year as parents, students and workers began to see positive reaction nationally from lawmakers.
President Barack Obama announced in June his deferred-deportation program allowing young immigrants to apply for work visas. First lady Michelle Obama and Democratic leaders invited a handful of young people living illegally in the country to the State of Union address in February. During the speech, Obama called on Congress to quickly pass immigration reform.
Gaby Pacheco, a 28-year-old immigrant from Ecuador who was brought here illegally as a child, said the movement has become more structured as individual activists nationwide began sharing best-practice tips and seeking mentorship from veteran civil rights leaders from the era of César Chávez and farmworkers’ rights.
Pacheco said she and other organizers have urged the immigrants to stress their loyalty to the U.S., instead of flying Mexican and other foreign flags at civil rights’ marches.
“We’ve had to fight to be taken out of this high chair that they used to put us in, and they used to spoon-feed us, and now we are saying we want a seat at the table,” said Pacheco, who has met with Sens. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to demand immigration reform.
In 2010, the National Immigrant Youth Alliance was founded with members from eight states. It now has organizers in almost all states and chapters in more than 20. They held hunger strikes in Arizona, graduation ceremonies for students living illegally in San Francisco and marches from New York to Washington. Last year, seven youths got themselves arrested in Miami so they could describe deportation proceedings.
“Before there were a few people who were openly out. And now you are seeing people on Twitter with their handles being ‘I am undocumented,’” said Sonia Guinansaca, an organizer with the alliance who was brought from Ecuador to New York when she was 5. “It led to a safe space for many people to get involved.”
In Arizona, where lawmakers passed strict anti-immigration measures, immigrants living illegally in the U.S. have been particularly visible in demanding public policy changes. Nearly every week, immigrants demand rights and wave protest signs at the Capitol complex in Phoenix.
Silvia Garcia, 50, who has lived illegally in the U.S. for half of her life, is frustrated by Congress’ inaction. On her days off, she advocates for immigrant rights and in recent months has visited Republican Gov. Jan Brewer’s office to demand a friendlier state government.
“If they arrest us, they arrest us,” said Garcia, who was born in Mexico. “But we have to do something for the children. I tell my friend and neighbors they must get involved, not for us, but for the children, so they are left in peace.”