Seven of the nine undocumented activists held in an Arizona detention center have been found to have enough grounds to pursue political asylum.
The seven were in a group of nine Mexicans who at various times – some recently – lived illegally in the United States, left and then tried to re-enter on July 22 as part of a widely-publicized protest against U.S. deportation policies.
They have come to be known as DREAM 9. The seven immigrants are likely to be released from detention in Arizona and could be eligible for a work permit in the future.
The preliminary approval is highly unusual because it is rare for the U.S. government to grant asylum to Mexican citizens.
Experts explain that the bar for "credible fear of persecution" to pursue asylum is not nearly as high as it is for actually obtaining it.
I think this is the largest story in the history of immigration law. The only one that can rival this is the John Lennon deportation case. This is Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus.
“It’s not surprising,” said immigration attorney Matthew Kolken, who is not representing the activists, but said he had given their representatives some guidance before their protest. “Most of my clients are able to establish credible fear. But it’s a first step [for the activists]. The good news is that the Obama administration’s general policy is to release individuals who establish credible fear.”
The DREAM 9 activists’ protest has, political and immigration experts say, created a quandary for the White House and lawmakers in Congress who are trying to work on an immigration reform measure.
And it has bitterly divided advocates, including immigration lawyers – some of whom see the young activists as heroes, civil rights leaders in the tradition of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, and others who say they have engaged in a foolish, reckless manner that may undermine the very reforms they are seeking.
Some lawyers questioned whether the DREAM 9 could argue convincingly that they fear being in Mexico because, except for the two who were deported, the others returned on their own.
Other lawyers lashed out at them for, in essence, diagnosing the merits of their case from afar, without having all the facts.
The immigrants were trying to call attention to hundreds of thousands who have been deported during President Barack Obama's administration.
An immigration judge will have the final say whether they can remain permanently in the United States, but such a ruling could take years.
A decision is pending on two others in the case. They are Lizbeth Mateo, a 29-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, and Marco Saavedra, 23, from New York City. Both Mateo and Saavedra were among the original three activists who already were living in the United States and left last month to stage the protest.
“It was a controversial course of action they decided to undertake,” Kolken said to Fox News Latino. “But that’s what acts of disobedience are, they’re controversial.”
“When I saw nine young adults basically taking on the full weight of the U.S. government, the most powerful in the history of this planet, and doing so without anything but the shirts on their back, I couldn’t help but get behind those kids.”
Those who favor strict immigration enforcement say it would be a mistake for the U.S. government to treat the DREAM 9 with sympathy.
"Are we a country where we are fueled by political forces?" asked Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State and architect of many of the strictest state-level immigration measures, including that of Arizona.
"Is that the kind of world we want to be," he said to Fox News Latino, "where, if you have sympathy for me, then I get to break the law."
The immigrants were pushing for legislation being considered in Congress to offer eventual citizenship to some immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children.
House Republicans recently took a tentative step toward offering citizenship to some immigrants who fit into this category, but Democrats said it wasn't enough.
The dismissive reaction to the Republican proposal underscored the difficulties of finding any immigration reform compromise in the Republican-led House.
How the DREAM 9 will influence immigration reform is anyone's guess.
“I think this is the largest story in the history of immigration law,” Kolken said. “The only one that can rival this is the John Lennon deportation case. This is Rosa Parks sitting in the front of the bus.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.