Activist’s Criminal Record Forces Tough Questions Among DREAMers

Uriel Alberto is a young undocumented father who doesn't have a squeaky clean criminal record. His case is forcing activists and lawmakers alike to reconsider who they think should be able to pursue the American Dream.

By Julianne Hing Mar 13, 2012

It might have been a standard civil disobedience action. North Carolina activists Uriel Alberto, Estephania Mijangos-Lopez and Cynthia Martinez, tired of the anti-immigrant vilification of their community, wanted to make a statement to state lawmakers. On February 29 the three of them stood up one by one in a North Carolina immigration committee hearing and declared that they were exactly the people whose basic rights lawmakers were discussing.

"I am undocumented, and I am unafraid," Alberto shouted.

He continued over shouts from the seated public. People were yelling at him to "Go home! Go home!"

"I refuse to be bullied and intimidated by this committee and choose to empower my community," Alberto said.

Mijangos and Martinez did the same, and all three were arrested for disorderly conduct. Mijangos and Martinez were released, and immigration officials announced that they would not pursue deportation  proceedings for them. In recent years, undocumented immigrant youth have taken part in civil disobedience actions to call attention to various immigration issues, risking detention and deportation in the process. And immigration officials have largely refused to take the bait; the Obama administration has decided that immigrant youth who might qualify for the DREAM Act are not worth the political backlash that would inevitably erupt if they pursued removal proceedings against them.

But unlike the dozens of immigrant youth activists who’ve blocked streets in Atlanta and Los Angeles, staged sit-ins in congressional lawmakers’ offices in Arizona, or plopped down inside the atrium of a Senate office building on Capitol Hill, Uriel Alberto was not released after being processed by police. Alberto has a criminal record filled with traffic violations and a DWI charge, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement is investigating his case to determine whether or not to pursue deportation proceedings against him.

And now, with Alberto facing possible transfer to a detention facility later this week, he’s forced the country to ask anew an age-old question: who among the nation’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants deserves to stay in the country? Alberto’s forced the immigrant rights movement to grapple with a far more pointed question: in a political moment when anti-immigrant hysteria shows few signs of leveling off, how exactly should the community defend the rights of an undocumented immigrant who’s made mistakes with the law?

Alberto, now 24, came to the country when he was 7 years old from Mexico. He had plans of running long distance for a D1 school. "You have to recover from failure. You have to be strong. That’s why track appealed to me," he told "I thought it was my way out."

But school would prove to be prohibitively expensive. Undocumented immigrants are barred from federal student aid, and in most states must pay out-of-state tuition two or three times what their peers pay because they are not considered residents of their home states. When he was a teen, Alberto’s father left his family.

"My life unraveled," Alberto told "I became extremely depressed."

With his college plans put on hold and a family to support, Alberto had to become the primary breadwinner in his family. It was around that time that his run-ins with police started. Over the course of the last six years, he’s racked up a series of charges, one for throwing fruit at another vehicle and another for the use of a fake ID, most for minor traffic violations. He also faced domestic violence charges, which were later dismissed. When Alberto was 20, he was arrested for a DWI, and was later convicted.

"I do have a DUI," he told Raleigh’s Fox affiliate WGHP yesterday. "I blew a 0.04 on the side of the road. It was just because I was 20 years of age. I didn’t ask to come here. I didn’t choose to come here but I’m here and I’m trying to make the best of my situation. This is the land of second opportunities."

It’s something his attorney and activist friends say he’s indeed worked hard to put behind him, and insist should not define him. Yet it can be a difficult case to make, especially in a harsh, anti-immigrant climate. The country insists on a narrow black and white dichotomy: good, deserving immigrants may stay, but bad, so-called "criminal" immigrants must be shunned.

The political culture has influenced legislative policy. The DREAM Act, a federal bill which would allow undocumented youth like Alberto who clear a host of hurdles and commit a minimum of two years to college or the military, to gain citizenship. A handful of years ago, it was part of an immigration reform package that would have theoretically provided relief for wide swaths of the immigrant community, and not just young, exceptional immigrants. But by 2010, the DREAM Act was the only viable legalization bill on the table; every other pro-immigrant fix had become politically untouchable. That year the DREAM Act came closer to become law than it ever had in its decade of existence. It still didn’t pass.

Over time, legislators have introduced various stipulations and steadily narrowed the scope of who might be eligible to benefit from the bill. In its inception, community service, in addition to college and military service, would have been a legitimate way for an undocumented youth to gain citizenship. These days, that language looks generous.

There are an estimated 2.1 million undocumented youth in the country, and every year 65,000 graduate from high school.

Last week Rep. David Rivera, a Republican from Florida, announced that he would introduce the Studying Towards Adjusted Residency, or STARS Act. The bill would allow only those who are 18 and a half years old and get accepted to four-year universities the ability to gain some of the benefits the DREAM Act would confer. IT’s Rivera’s second chance at introducing an immigration fix for immigrant youth–he’s also the author of the ARMS Act, a military-only version of the DREAM Act.

Some immigrant youth reject the further narrowing of the federal bill.

"All DREAM Act-eligilbe students are brilliant," said Evelyn Rivera, a national steering committee member with the national immigrant youth network United We DREAM. "Some of them possess great talents in math, or in English, or in writing. That doesn’t mean you always need to have a 4.0 GA or that you can’t serve this country just because you do not go to a four-year university."

The immigrant youth movement has cultivated an image, though, as being one filled with exactly that kind of high-achieving immigrant. Valedictorians like Miami high school student Daniela Palaez, who recently fought off a deportation order with the help of Rep. Rivera, often serve as the de facto public faces of the immigrant youth movement. But more and more, activists are grappling with how to make their movement more inclusive and more representative of their constituency.

"We have to change the narrative, and if we want to do that we have to take ownership of what ICE say it’s holding against [Alberto]," said Mohammad Abdollahi, an organizer with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance.

Alberto’s case represents a shift, if not an intentionally strategic one, in the kinds of cases immigrant youth are defending.

"This is the first kind of public case that have stronger criminal records we’re pushing. As a movement we’re learning to organize around them, but we have to be honest," Abdollahi said. "If we want to defend people’s right to stay, we can’t hide the facts."

It is easy to quietly brush over the mistakes and transgressions of immigrants, but it does nothing to expand the political discourse. With Alberto facing immigration detention, activists are not shying away from these conversations.

"Most of our youth are not valedictorians," said Viridiana Martinez, a co-founder of the North Carolina DREAM Team, which helped coordinate the action Alberto took part in. "The reality is most fall in the scope of facing a lot of challenges, maybe not making the best of decisions, because you don’t have the resources."

The point, Martinez and others say, is that immigrants are human beings, which is to say, that they also make mistakes. But, Martinez argues, they should not be defined by them.

"I always try to flip the spotlight, and turn it around," said Pablo Paredes, who works with 67 Suenos, a California group that organizes undocumented youth. His organization’s name highlights a basic reality: 67 percent of undocumented youth will not qualify for the DREAM Act.

"About two-thirds of Americans don’t have a degree. Does that mean that they don’t have the right to vote? That they don’t have the right to travel? We refuse to hold someone to a higher criteria just because they weren’t born in the same place that you were born."

Alberto is due for an immigration bond hearing on Thursday, said Moriello. If an immigration judge grants bond, he will be released, but if it is denied, he will likely be transferred to a detention facility in Georgia, and deportation proceedings would kick in, said his criminal attorney, Joseph DiPierro.

Alberto had been on a ten-day hunger strike to protest his detainment, but gave it up on Monday. He’s fiercely committed to his community, said DiPierro. "He’s been extraordinarily strong, and extraordinarily gracious and unselfish."

"To say that because of his past mistakes he can’t turn his life around and better himself here in the land of opportunity, that’s the most un-American thing," said Martinez, from the North Carolina DREAM Team. "In this country if you’re not up, you can work you way up from the bottom, that’s very empowering."

"If Uriel is deported, that would be un-American, and go against everything this country stands for."

All photos courtesy of North Carolina DREAM Team.