After crossing a river back into the United States from Mexico with a small group of immigrants, Skarlett Salazar was told to go her separate way, as the rest had done, to avoid detection by immigration authorities.
So she headed east, trekking warily across the Texas desert to return to the Western North Carolina town where she had grown up. It was her only path toward a promising future, she told those who had gathered at a downtown Asheville church March 6 for a “Coming Out of the Shadows” meeting and discussion. A future was something the teenager had sought to build in Mexico City after moving there with her parents two years ago, she explained.
But despite her resolve, Salazar — a wide-eyed high school senior who now lives with her remaining family members in Hendersonville and who hopes to go to college to study neurology — lives with a sense of trepidation.
“If we go out, immigration might get us,” she said. Salazar is one of the estimated 1.7 million “Dreamers” — youth brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents.
About a dozen “Dreamers” and other attendees met at the church, speaking of the fears they face as a result of their illegal status, and talking about the family members whom they have long tried to reunite with after years of separation.
The gathering was arranged by MountActivist, an immigrant-rights group led by youths across the region. It is tied to a nationwide coalition, the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, which has spent the past few years seeking support for the reunification of families separated by deportations.
Beyond raising money to help pay for travel and other expenses involved in trying to bring those who left this country back across its border, NIYA already has helped arrange the returns of dozens of people who had tried to come back to the U.S. but could not. Gatherings like the Asheville one are meant to raise awareness about the realities of the country’s immigration system.
As Congress debates ways to offer a direct path to citizenship, “The community is not powerless,” says Seth Farber, a member of the local immigrant-rights group who helped arrange the gathering.
Like Salazar, several young adults who attended gathering are known as Dreamers. Some have returned to Mexico in search of work or education, given the limitations they face here with their illegal status. In North Carolina, the state has agreed to issue driver’s licenses to immigrants who qualify for a federal deferral of deportation, but officials do not offer in-state tuition to students who are granted the temporary reprieve.
That uncertain status was why Luis Leon left for Mexico in 2011, after graduating from high school in Marion. He sought to return shortly thereafter, citing widespread crime and poor economic conditions in Mexico. “When they get there, they see the reality,” he said at the gathering, referring to illegal immigrants who leave for Mexico.
After spending about a year in an immigration detention center while seeking asylum, Leon, who came here illegally as a child, re-entered the country with a small group of immigrants, known as Dream 9. Initially, authorities at the Arizona border detained them after they tried to enter the country without immigration papers. “Those who were determined to have credible fear of persecution (the overwhelming majority) were paroled into the U.S. awaiting adjudication of their asylum cases,” said Farber.
The attempt was part of a protest organized by the nationwide coalition, which has since helped lead more immigrants back across the border, including about 30 or so last fall, and it now is seeking the return of some 250, Leon said.