Uriel Alberto was born in Mexico 25 years ago, but after 17 years in North Carolina he thinks of himself as a Southern boy.
To Alberto, one of the many young immigrants brought to this country as a child by parents seeking a better life, his homeland is foreign. But in the United States, the place he considers home, he is foreign and illegal.
Alberto, one of three undocumented immigrants arrested in February after interrupting a state legislative hearing on immigration, is scheduled to appear in Wake County district court on Monday to respond to those charges.
Alberto and his fellow protesters decided to step out of the shadows so legislators debating immigration policies could attach faces to issues that stir such fervent emotion.
As legislators talked about stricter laws at a Feb. 29 meeting of the House Select Committee on the States Role in Immigration Policy, Alberto, Estephania Mijangos and Cynthia Martinez rose from their seats.
They were all members of the NC Dream Team, an organization of undocumented immigrant youths and their allies working to raise awareness about the issues that vex a generation who consider themselves Americans in their hearts and minds, but without the rights of citizenship.
I am undocumented and I am unafraid, Alberto said when he stood. I refuse to be bullied and intimidated by this committee and choose to empower my community.
But his willingness to risk arrest to empower his community could result in him being sent back to a homeland he barely knows even after President Barack Obamas recent executive action that allows hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to remain in the United States if their parents brought them here as children.
Taking a risk with his past
Under the change, the Department of Homeland Security will no longer initiate the deportation of illegal immigrants who came to the United States before age 16 if they have lived here for at least five years and are either in school, are high school graduates or are military veterans in good standing. The immigrants also must have clean criminal records and cannot be older than 30.
Albertos past, however, falls short of perfect. His future, consequently, falls short of certain.
Alberto, a Winston-Salem resident who works as a paralegal, has had brushes with the law that caused Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to begin deportation proceedings against him after his February arrest.
In January 2008, Alberto was pulled over by police, accused of driving while impaired. He said he registered 0.04 on a breath test at the scene; 0.08 is considered impaired in North Carolina. But Alberto, a few months short of his 21st birthday, was charged. He also was convicted of driving without a license on four occasions.
Alberto also has been charged with assault on a female after an altercation with his then-wife. The case was dismissed after she wrote a letter, pleading with authorities not to deport Alberto, calling him a big-hearted individual and a kind, loving, generous man.
Such crimes rarely draw federal attention, but for an illegal immigrant, they change everything.
Albertos decision to interrupt the legislative hearing could mean he is not only forced by immigration rules to leave the U.S., he also could leave behind his 2-year-old child, who lives in Orlando with his mother.
Alberto recently described why he and his cohorts decided to confront the lawmakers. He was upset that lawmakers were citing crime and employment statistics to bolster arguments for stricter regulations.
Many illegal immigrants who work in this country also pay taxes, Alberto contends, and yet cant vote and have no access to Social Security or Medicare. They have access to free public school educations to set themselves up for college, he acknowledged, but often cant afford to attend.
Alberto, a track star in high school, had hopes of going to college, maybe even landing a spot at East Carolina University. His immigration status prevented him from paying in-state tuition or getting federal loans, the only ways he could afford to go.
I was trying to encourage him to come, said Joe Catania, the then-ECU assistant that recruited him as a distance runner. What I noticed about him was that he was a tough kid, very coachable, and I liked him. He seemed like he overcame a lot.
Instead, Alberto took what work he could and decided to take a stand, even if it meant disrupting a legislative hearing.
I know its been considered disrespectful. Its been said Ive been making a mockery of the system, Alberto said. But for someone like me its so significant. Those are moments of empowerment for me and my community, and I cherish them.
A choice to break the law
Ron Woodard, director of NC Listen, an organization lobbying for tougher immigration laws, said Alberto and others had been put in a difficult situation by their parents, but that did not warrant a loosening of laws.
Their parents made the choice to break the law and come here. Thats put their dependents in a difficult situation, Woodard said.
There are consequences, Woodard added. They are not a child anymore, they are an adult. They can go back to their home country as an adult, legally get a university education and a job. It would be annoying for them to have to do that. But if they got an job or college slot here, isnt that going to annoy an American trying to get that spot or job. Who do we want annoy?
But Scott Holmes, the Durham lawyer representing Alberto in his Wake County criminal case, said he admired the young demonstrators trying to draw attention to a larger societal issue: One of the extraordinary things about these kids is when they come out of the shadows theyre running the risk of being arrested and a trip to a home they dont even know.