Mohammad Abdollahi of Ann Arbor came to America from Iran as a three-year-old when his father was accepted for a Ph.D. program at the University of Michigan. But due to an error in processing an immigration form — the family paid $20 less than required — their application to stay in the U.S. was rejected.
Instead of returning to Iran, Abdollahi’s family chose to remain in the U.S. — illegally.
Abdollahi, 24, went through the public school system, graduating high school and then from Washtenaw Community College. But when he attempted to enroll at Eastern Michigan University, after being told he was the kind of student the school wanted, the decision was summarily revoked, and his acceptance letter unceremoniously ripped from his hands.
Today 17 May Abdollahi is staging a sit-in with three other undocumented youth in an attempt to focus attention on federal legislation called the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act), which supporters say will reward hard work and civic responsibility while providing a path to citizenship for the thousands of undocumented youth who are in this country but have known no other home but the United States. The protest is taking place at the Tuscon, AZ offices of Republican Sen. John McCain, a former GOP presidential candidate.
That sit-in, which began a short time ago, is taking full advantage of the internet to spread the word. The protesters have put up a website documenting the event and you can track what happens minute to minute on Twitter. Joining him in the protest are Lizbeth Mateo of Los Angeles, California; Tania Unzueta of Chicago, Illinois; and Yahaira Carrillo of Kansas City, Missouri.
His action, however, is far from just an act of civil disobedience. As a young gay man, he faces deportation to a country where he knows neither the language nor the culture — and worse, where homosexuality is punished with torture and executions. His supporters say he is literally putting his life on the line by “coming out” as an undocumented, gay youth.
Priscila Martinez, campaign manager for One Michigan a political group formed to push for passage of the DREAM Act, said she has known Abdollahi, who goes by Mo, for a year.
“I am nervous over what could happen,” she said of her friend’s sit in protest. “I’m not going to let that be a hindrance to pushing for this law.”
She said she and others while concerned about the action, “trust” Abdollahi’s decision. “He believes this could mobilize people to take action,” she said.
The proposed legislation, introduced by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), has 38 Senate sponsors from both sides of the aisle, including Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI). If the legislation passes, undocumented residents ages 12-35 could qualify for a path to citizenship, but would have to meet very specific criteria.
To qualify, a person must have entered the United States before they turned 16, and they must have resided in the U.S. no less than five years. In addition, they must complete high school or get a G.E.D. On top of this, they must be accepted to an institution of higher education. This would allow them to qualify for conditional permanent residency. Once they have obtained the conditional permanent residency, they will have six years to complete at least two years of university or college education, or two years of military service. Once the two year requirement is settled they can apply for permanent residency, which puts them on the path to applying for full citizenship.
“It’s tough but fair. It has the values we value as Americans,” says Martinez. “It’s good legislation.”
And a host of groups and businesses support the legislation as well, while only one group, Federation for American Immigration Reform, opposes the legislation. Among the supportive groups are Latino Policy Forum, Asian American Institute, American Immigration Lawyer’s Association, The College Board, AFL-CIO, Service Employees International Union, the Center for Community Colleges and Microsoft.
Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) has been listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The group and many conservative organizations have challenged that label.
Calls to Levin’s office seeking comment on why he has co-sponsored the legislation were not returned by press time. Calls to Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s office about where she stands on the legislation were also not returned by press time.
Michigan activists say they want to push Stabenow to co-sponsor the legislation, hoping that by adding her voice to the chorus, they will be able to force the legislation to move in the Senate. And they hope that Abdollahi’s dramatic and risky protest raises the level of attention to the importance of the bill.
Steve Ralls, communications director for Immigration Equality, a national group focused on immigration reform and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, says Abdollahi’s actions put him in “quite a bit of jeopardy.”
“There is no doubt Iran remains one of the most homophobic countries anywhere,” he said. “LGBT people are often met with torture and executions.”
If arrested, Abdollahi faces deportation. Ralls said that his group has worked with many LGBT Iranian asylum seekers, but Abdollahi is in a circumstance many undocumented gay youth find themselves in. In order to seek asylum from the risk of death or oppression, they must apply with one year of entering the U.S. border. “That’s a tough hill for young people to climb,” Ralls notes.
“[Abdollahi's case] is certainly a strong argument for why the DREAM Act should be passed as part of comprehensive immigration reform,” Ralls said.
He said the recently passed legislation in Arizona, which directs law enforcement to inquire about citizenship status of any person based on “reasonable suspicion,” is dangerous. The law has triggered boycotts of the state, and complaints from law enforcement. Citizens groups have also complained, noting that it will encourage racial profiling.
“This is a prime example of why number one the Arizona law is so heinous and number two why Congress needs to address humane immigration reform,” Ralls said.
Michigan, along with 28 other states, is facing the prospect of a similar law. State Rep. Kim Meltzer (R-Macomb Twp.) says she will introduce legislation in the state house which will mirror the Arizona law.
“Illegal is illegal, but state law enforcement officers must be given the proper training and authority to provide this basic level of protection that already exists at the federal level for our state,” Meltzer said in a press statement on her website.
Rep. David Agema (R-Grandville) has introduced six other pieces of legislation which will limit undocumented residents’ access to welfare, food stamps and other assistance. He plans a rally Tuesday on the steps of the state capitol to protest illegal immigration. One bill would require employers with state contracts and all employment agencies to verify the citizenship of employees.
“Fair, strict immigration policies will secure our state’s physical and economic security,” said Agema, in a press release on his website. “I invite concerned citizens from around the state to come support fair employment practices and let our government officials know we do not support amnesty and that we expect them to do a better job securing our state.”
Agema says his bills will save the state millions of dollars currently spent on undocumented workers in the state.
Agema’s rally on Tuesday will feature Meltzer, Oakland County Commissioner Jim Runestad and Frankenmuth Tea Party leader Tamyra Murray.
Republican candidate for governor Mike Bouchard has announced he will also attend and speak at the rally. Bouchard is the Oakland County Sheriff and faces Attorney General Mike Cox, Congressman Pete Hoekstra, businessman Rick Snyder and state Sen. Tom George in the August primary for the GOP nomination for governor.
Though LGBT issues and immigration issues are rarely addressed together, Ralls tells the Michigan Messenger that there is a clear connection.
“As LGBT people, our community certainly understands what it’s like to be singled out because of who we are, or what we look like,” Ralls said. “There’s a real danger as this fervor begins to spread.”