CELESTE HEADLEE, HOST:
For many Americans the immigration debate is more about political talking points and less about real people. Nine young immigrants hoped to change that last month when they arrived at the Mexican border and demanded to enter the U.S. legally. The so-called Dream 9 made headlines when they were detained for two weeks in Arizona. They claimed asylum and they've now been released and allowed to return to their homes in this country, for now, at least. Luis Leon was part of that group. He's now settling back into life in North Carolina and he joins me now. Welcome.
LUIS LEON: Thank you.
HEADLEE: The Dream 9 - and when I say Dream 9, I'm talking about you. You're all of Mexican heritage but you were raised here in the United States. Some still lived in the U.S. but then went to the border, specifically, to make a stand. Your reason, you say, was different. Why did you take part in this?
LEON: I took part in this because whenever I graduated high school, in 2011, I stepped out the country, because I couldn't continue my education here in the U.S. because tuition was too high. I couldn't pay for it. I couldn't afford it. I didn't have no scholarships, anything, because of my status. And so we took a last-minute decision for me to go to Mexico by myself and continue college down there. But after two years of being there, it wasn't what I thought. I did not feel comfortable in my country that I was born in. And the Deferred Act passed, and then I would feel like I was missing out on all the opportunities I had - that I had been working for all my life. And so my reason to come back was because I wanted to continue my education here in the U.S. and also be with my family because I hadn't seen them in two years.
HEADLEE: When did you come to the U.S. as a child?
LEON: In 1998, when I was five years old.
HEADLEE: Growing up, did you know that you were undocumented?
LEON: Yes. My mother always told me, look, you're undocumented here. It's not the same thing as anybody else. You don't have the same rights. And she always told me to work harder because I had to work harder 'cause of my status, if I wanted to have a future here in the U.S.
HEADLEE: So take me back to the time on the border. What happened when you tried to cross in and what were your interactions with the border agents like?
LEON: Well, when I tried to cross in, it was really difficult. In 2012, I tried it on my own when the Deferred Action passed. And it was really hard treatment. They treated you like a criminal, like, if you were somebody really dangerous. It was five days of not seeing the sun, inside a cell, eating three bologna sandwiches a day. It was really hard. And then after that experience, I didn't want to try that anymore, even though I couldn't see my family, so I decided to go back to Mexico. And then I heard about the Dream 9 and about what they were going to do, if I wanted to be part of it, and it was a completely different experience. They treated me completely different because of how big the case was. And so it was a completely new experience, I was actually treated well by immigration.
HEADLEE: So now you're seeking asylum.
HEADLEE: Why? What is your case for asylum?
LEON: Yes, because I have credible fear of returning to Mexico for torture, kidnap, extortion. And so I don't feel comfortable in Mexico with my family being here in the U.S. Many people like me that are - grew in the U.S., have U.S. culture in them, and then they go back to Mexico and try to live there, they're not accepted well. And people look at them as targets because they think, oh, they have family in the U.S., they can get a lot of money if we can kidnap them. So that's a big reason why I wanted to come back.
HEADLEE: I mean, I'm sure that you hear a lot of the political rhetoric about undocumented immigrants. Many politicians feel that, Mexicans particularly, are trying to get away with something and breaking the law and why don't you just go through the regular immigration...
HEADLEE: ...I guess, bureaucracy that many other...
HEADLEE: ...People do. Why not do it legally? What's your response to that?
LEON: Because they have this system that tangles you in. While I was in Eloy Detention Center, and I would listen to other men tell me their stories about how long they had been there, some of these men have been in prison for two years just waiting for a response if they can stay in the U.S. or go back to Mexico. And so many men and women and families don't want to be in a jail for that long, so they have no other choice but to cross illegally because they know if they try to go the legal way, they're going to go through this really, really long process that, maybe at the end, they will be denied and it would be a waste of time, honestly.
HEADLEE: Was the Dream 9 - is it a publicity stunt? Was there another way to go about this without drawing so many headlines?
LEON: We had no other choice. I mean, we tried everything. We had been waiting for so long for any kind of help and, like, we feel like we have no more time to wait. Every year, they're students who graduate from high school and yet, they can't continue their career. They have to stay in the shadows. They have to fear. And so we want to put, as I was told, pressure so that we can get it out there and we can raise consciousness about that. We can't wait no more, and there's a lot of families being separated every day because there's no help in the U.S. for us.
HEADLEE: When somebody in Mexico asked where you were from, what did you answer?
LEON: I would say I was from Marion, North Carolina. And they would be like, you were born in the U.S.? And I would be like, no, I was born in Veracruz. And then they're like, then you're from Mexico. And I'm like, no, I was raised in the U.S. that is my home, And so I say I'm from Marion, North Carolina.
HEADLEE: How does it feel for you when you hear this issue of immigration when they're really talking about you? How does it feel to listen to these debates going back and forward?
LEON: It's really strange and never in my life I would thought I would be part of something like this. I always wanted to help, but I never thought it would go this far. And so it's really strange for me. I'm not used to it. I'm scared at times, but I have to keep going forward because I want to be with my family and I want to help out other people.
HEADLEE: What happens now? Are you able to go to school in the U.S. or do you have to wait until your status is settled?
LEON: Right now, that's what we're seeing. I have court on September for my asylum case. And so we're going to see what happens after that 'cause right now my status in the U.S. is just illegally but paroled.
HEADLEE: Which means, what?
LEON: I don't have a status. I'm just on wait right now until my court date. And so after that, it'll decide if I can say here, if I'm going to be able to have a social or any kind of benefits. And so I can go to college, because right now, even though I'm here paroled and I have the right to be here right now, tuition is still too high. When I go apply for a college, they give me out-of-state tuition. It's, like, really, really high and I can't afford it.
HEADLEE: Because of your status?
LEON: Because of my status, yes, even though I graduated from a North Carolina high school.
HEADLEE: And what happens if your asylum is denied and - will you be deported?
LEON: That is the case that we're fighting, that we don't get deported back to Mexico if our asylum case is denied and we have no credible fear.
HEADLEE: All right, so let me, Luis, get you to just talk real quickly to somebody like Representative King - somebody who opposes immigration reform. If you were in the room with someone like that, what would you say to them to argue your case?
LEON: I would say for them not to think about this politically, but put themselves in the shoes of families that have been separated for years that cannot get together, that - of students that graduate from high school with honors and work really hard to be someone in this country and yet, they're still not credited for it. And so they have to step out of the country they were born in, the country they want to help, the country they want to be successful in and think about that. And put themselves in those shoes - having to leave and go to a country that they were born in but yet, they don't not know a single thing about it and they have nothing to do with their culture.
HEADLEE: Luis Leon was part of the so-called Dream 9. That's a group of undocumented immigrants who made headlines when they were detained at the border just last month. He was kind enough to join us from member station WCQS in Asheville, North Carolina. Luis, thank you so much and good luck.
LEON: Thank you so much for having me here today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.