Amid the noisy cultural and political warfare waged over immigration reform, a quieter but no less compelling bit of protest has emerged.

This week, about 30 people -- most of them Latin-Americans who had been previously deported from the U.S. after living here for years -- marched to the Otay Mesa border crossing in San Diego County and told border inspectors they wanted asylum. The individuals were then taken to a detention center, where their fate now rests with an immigration judge.

Amelia Gonzalez, 18, right, and her brother Jose Gonzalez, 12, are photographed at their apartment in San Pablo, Calif., on Thursday, March 13, 2014. Their
Amelia Gonzalez, 18, right, and her brother Jose Gonzalez, 12, are photographed at their apartment in San Pablo, Calif., on Thursday, March 13, 2014. Their mom Antonia Aguilar traveled to Mexico to visit a sick relative three years ago and was detained and not allowed back into the U.S. They live with their dad Jose Gonzalez and their brother David Gonzalez attends San Jose State University. (Jane Tyska/Bay Area News Group)

Part of a new crusade called "Bring Them Home," the action is aimed at heaping negative attention on the Obama administration's deportation policy, which activists say is tearing apart the families of many otherwise law-abiding illegal immigrants. The protest comes at a critical juncture, when comprehensive immigration reform -- which would grant most illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship -- has stalled in the U.S. House of Representatives after passing the Senate last summer.

Among the protesters was a Honduran national from San Jose and a Mexican wife and mother from San Pablo who has been separated from her family for nearly three years -- including her son, a San Jose State student.


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"The Obama administration maintains that its deportation policy has affected mostly immigrants convicted of crimes, but in the wake of the protests the president on Thursday issued a surprise call to re-evaluate its practices.

"Glad we finally got his attention," said David Gonzalez, an engineering student at SJSU, upon hearing the news. "My family story is just one of the many stories about how deportation affects so many other people -- relatives, kids, wives and husbands -- when deportation happens. I'm glad they are finally seeing us as human beings."

Opponents of illegal immigration, however, call the emerging protest tactic little more than an orchestrated stunt that tries to make enforcement of the law the problem, instead of blaming the people who broke the law in the first place.

Meanwhile, the families, children and "Dreamers" (undocumented young people who were brought to the U.S. as children by their parents) behind the growing effort believe plenty of good can come from injecting emotional stories and human faces into the immigration debate. If reform will eventually happen, its supporters wonder, why should authorities continue to break up families and make kids suffer in the meantime? After all, activists point out, the administration in 2012 gave temporary protection to the Dreamers.

"The wonderful thing is that these events are being organized by young people who are sick of immigration reform going nowhere," said César Juarez, a Dreamer and community organizer, at a San Jose rally on Monday held in conjunction with the San Diego event. "All we have seen are more deportations. And, at the present rate, in April Obama will hit the 2 million mark -- more than George W. Bush."

A Pew Research Center poll released this week shows the American public is evenly divided on whether the increased number of deportations in recent years is good or bad. About half of whites (49 percent) view the increased deportations positively, compared with 35 percent of Latinos and 39 percent of blacks.

Physical threats

The group that "crossed" the southern border Monday morning is expected to be followed by as many as 250 more in the coming weeks. Among those in the first group was Jaren Rodriguez, a Dreamer from San Jose, and Antonia Aguilar, a San Pablo mom who lived in the U.S. for 11 years before returning to Mexico nearly three years ago to say goodbye to her dying father.

Because she could not get back into the U.S., Aguilar has not seen her husband and three children since. Her son, David Gonzalez, 19, was at the San Jose rally with his sister, Amelia, 18, and their brother Jose, 11. All three children are undocumented. The two younger children live in San Pablo with their father.

"We all miss her very much," said David Gonzalez, "but I think my little brother is the one who needs her the most. He was just a child when she left."

The new strategy is for those in custody to request an interview from immigration authorities to establish a "credible fear'" of persecution in their country of origin. That step is needed for them to continue their journey through the U.S. asylum system.

Aguilar's family believes that during her interview she will also describe the trauma of being separated from her kids, but will emphasize that her long stint in the U.S. makes her even more vulnerable in Michoacán, a state in Mexico ravaged by drug-war violence.

"We are always worrying," said Amelia, who attends Richmond High School, "about our mom's safety."

In several weeks, the family hopes Aguilar -- and a number of others -- will emerge from this third "Bring Them Home" effort and be allowed back into the country.

Critical response

Ira Mehlman, a seasoned opponent of illegal immigration, calls the recent tactic just another wrongheaded movement that essentially asks that immigration laws be ignored. The spokesman for FAIR -- the Federation for American Immigration Reform -- is especially critical of the notion that otherwise law-abiding folks should be given passes.

Mehlman argues that immigration reform advocates are ignoring a simple fact: Deportation is the prescribed consequence for violating immigration law. "You don't have to commit another crime to face deportation. That's like telling a cop, 'I was speeding, but, hey, I wasn't drinking, so you shouldn't write me a ticket.'

"Being a good person is not grounds for political asylum. We live in a world of 7 billion mostly good people, but you still can't be granted asylum because of that."

Juarez said the new border tactic first arose last summer when seven "Dreamers" were allowed to return to the U.S. from Mexico. A few months later, another, larger group of nearly three dozen students and family members came to the border. And most of them were ultimately allowed back into the U.S.

Media representatives at ICE -- the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency -- were under orders this week to refer all media calls on the protest to officials at the Department of Homeland Security. No one there returned calls.

While family members believe the "homers" will remain in a detention center until their asylum cases are decided, Mehlman's view is different. He said each protester has been coached about the correct things to say to an immigration judge and that they will likely be temporarily released into the U.S.

"They'll be told to come back in a couple of months for their hearing," Mehlman said, "and when they don't return, nothing will happen."

Contact David E. Early at 408-920-5836. Follow him at Twitter.com/davidearlysr.