Photo by Sarah Mirk

ELISA SHOULD have been nervous at her first protest. Instead, the Mount Hood Community College student was giddy as she stood in robes and a mortarboard in Pioneer Courthouse Square last Wednesday, December 8. She was one of several illegal immigrants attending a 100-person mock graduation in support of the Dream Act, a national bill to create a path to citizenship for children of illegal immigrants who graduate from US high schools.

Right now, even though Elisa has lived nearly her whole life in Portland, it would take only one arrest—say, for disorderly conduct—to land her in swift deportation proceedings.

Support of the Dream Act—which heads to a Senate vote this month, after it passed the House of Representatives last week—has led young illegal immigrants locally and nationally to come out of the closet about their status.

The Urban Institute of Washington, DC, estimates that 65,000 illegal residents graduate from American high schools every year but see their ambitions to attend college or get good jobs stymied by a lack of papers. Portland-based immigration advocacy group CAUSA estimates that 44,000 Oregon students would qualify for citizenship in the future if the Dream Act passes.

But even as they're coming out for public protests, local students without papers are trying to balance public activism with keeping a low profile—especially with immigration authorities increasingly scooping up people for transgressions as small as transit-fare jumping ["MAX-imum Punishment," News, Aug 26].

Elisa, for example, isn't the Mount Hood student's real name. "This is the first time I've ever told anyone," she said, referring to her immigration status. "In high school, it was very taboo. The only information we get is from each other: how to keep studying, how to get by."

As the protest leaders shouted over a bullhorn to start a march around Pioneer Courthouse Square, Clark College student Gabriella stood off to the side of the crowd in her graduation robes.

"We are directly affected by the Dream Act. We feel it's up to us to make it happen," said Gabriella, whose parents brought her to the United States at age seven. Without federal financial aid, Gabriella says, she is paying for college with a generous donation from her fourth-grade teacher.

Deportations do happen, even to good students. Hector Lopez arrived in Portland as an infant and became student body president of Rex Putnam High School. But immigration officials arrested him and his parents this past August for missing an immigration hearing in 1999. Lopez, who speaks little Spanish and is now 21-years-old, is in an Arizona detention facility petitioning for asylum because he says he was physically threatened by a Mexican drug cartel after being deported to Mexico City. His case has both rallied and shocked local immigration activists.

Many of the mock-graduation organizers met during the production of Papers, a Portland-produced movie chronicling the lives of five illegal immigrant high school students.

"I am very protective and concerned about anyone talking about their status. But what we've done is try to follow their lead," says Papers director Anne Galisky. "It's very similar to the gay rights movement. Coming out is what will change people."

Both Oregon senators support the Dream Act (Jeff Merkley is a co-sponsor), but Oregon's US representatives split on last week's vote. Earl Blumenauer and Peter DeFazio supported it, Greg Walden and Kurt Schrader voted no, and David Wu abstained. While Schrader explained in a statement that he wants an immigration overhaul, not piecemeal change, opposition is strong. Oregonians for Immigration Reform is calling on legislators to vote against it.

"It would be a slap to people who are here legally," says President Jim Ludwick, who thinks grads without papers should apply for college in their parents' home countries. "Where are all these kids going to go? Are they going to compete for slots at Oregon universities?"