Multi-American | How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Immigration reform protesters take on more aggressive tactics

"Dreamers" wearing their school graduation caps and gowns to show their desire to finish school in the U.S., march with linked arms to the U.S. port of entry where they planned to request humanitarian parole, in Nogales, Mexico, Monday, July 22, 2013.
Samantha Sais

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Last week, college student Dean Santos stood with dozens of other protesters in San Francisco as they surrounded a federal bus believed to be carrying immigrant detainees bound for deportation. Their goal: To keep the bus from leaving.

It was the most recent in a series of increasingly bold protests - and risky ones, because some of the protesters themselves face possible deportation.

They include activists like Santos, who grew up in the U.S. without legal status and was almost deported himself in 2011. He was granted a reprieve, but says he's willing to put himself on the line to help others.

"Yes, I have something to lose, but it’s worth fighting for, said Santos, 23, who arrived from the Philippines with his family when he was a child. "I've been inside that bus before. I know the pain that those people felt, and I don’t want another person to experience what I went through. If I can do anything to at least stop that, I will do it.”

The protest tactics of immigrant rights advocates have evolved since the massive marches of 2006, perhaps most significantly a few years ago, when young immigrant activists began going public with their lack of legal status.

It was a bold step aimed at putting a human face on the immigration debate, and by and large, it was well-received. Some advocates say it helped pave the way for deferred action, an Obama administration program that since last year has offered temporary legal status to young immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minors.

But as Congress has debated immigration reform this year – and so far failed to agree on a deal – activists’ tactics have grown more aggressive. In July, a group of young people referred to as the “Dream 9” attempted to re-enter the U.S. in Arizona after voluntarily leaving for Mexico. They spent time in immigrant detention before their release. More recently, around 30 young activists mounted a similar border protest in Texas.

The most recent wave of protests began earlier this month in Arizona, when activists calling for the Obama administration to halt deportations chained themselves to bus wheels in order to prevent immigrants from being transported to federal court.

Other protests followed, including one at an Arizona immigrant detention center. Some of the same activists who participated in the Arizona protests were in San Francisco last week.

“Definitely, things feel different in the air," said Anoop Prasad, an attorney with the San Francisco office of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, an immigrant advocacy group that was involved in the protest there. "These actions aren’t like the actions I’ve seen in the past decade of doing this work. Something just feels different.”

Prasad said part of what’s behind the more aggressive protests is that while Congress hasn’t voted on reform, the Obama administration has continued deporting a record number of immigrants. It’s something the recent protests have focused on.

“More people are being deported now than ever before in U.S. history," he said. "So this has created this really fierce urgency that something needs to happen.”

But there’s been dissent over the tactics, even in immigrant rights circles, and some fear they could backfire.

Stephen Nuño is a political science professor at Northern Arizona University. He says the bold protests pose both political risks and personal ones, especially for protesters who don’t have legal status.

"The first negative impact is they get arrested," Nuño said. "There's no avenue for them to come back to the country. The second is that nothing happens in Congress, where those people who are on the line feel like these folks are taking a tactic that is not going to be beneficial to them as an elected official, and are not going to take a chance on the issue So it doesn’t seem as though it’s very effective.”

But that argument has been no deterrent to the organizers of the anti-deportation protests, who plan to take them nationwide.