PHOENIX — There was a time when Karina Galicia would change the subject when her friends brought up immigration. She constantly worried that she would be arrested if anyone found out she was living in the U.S. illegally.
But after years of hiding it, she decided last year that telling her story would do more good than harm. She began attending immigration reform rallies, wore T-shirts with slogans demanding more rights for immigrants and largely got over her fear of being deported.
“You just start to believe enough is enough. If you don’t expose yourself, things are never going to change,” said Galicia, 23, who was brought from Mexico to Phoenix when she was 7.
Across the country many who once were afraid to reveal their unlawful status are trying to shape the national immigration reform debate by sharing their stories, protesting and lobbying.
The growing influence of Hispanic voters — especially in last year’s election — has added to the momentum.
“These are youth that were educated in the American education system for the most part. Now they are doing what we teach people to do in America — stand up for your rights,” said Kevin Johnson, a civil rights professor at the University of California, Davis.
The marches and rallies stand in stark contrast to the anti-illegal immigration movement, which generally tries to sway politicians through phone calls or letter-writing campaigns. Activists say they aren’t worried that lawmakers or voters will be influenced by the emotional message from those in the country illegally.
Immigration reform critics argue extending legal rights to immigrants living illegally in the U.S. will prompt new waves of illegal immigration, create financial problems for cash-starved governments as low-income and undereducated immigrants become eligible for social benefits and increase job competition in a tough economy.
“Immigration reform is in the eye of the beholder. What they are really pushing for is amnesty of some form,” said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C. “It might go over well with supporters, but it’s not going to necessarily influence people or members of Congress who are opposed or even on the fence.”