Jose Ruiz is like many college students.

He's outspoken. He's politically active. And, most importantly, he wants to make sure as many people as possible hit the polls come Election Day.

Why? Because he can't. Ruiz is an illegal immigrant.

Buoyed by Super Tuesday's record Latino voter turnout, a San Jose State University student group — made up of both legal and illegal residents — is planning a widespread, grass-roots campaign to register voters, especially those who can speak for them at the polls.

"I don't need to live in the shadows anymore," said Ruiz, a 24-year-old San Jose State student whose mother brought him from Mexico on a tourist visa when he was a child.

The campaign is already sparking some controversy, with immigrant advocates applauding the students' efforts and opponents arguing their efforts could have grave consequences for U.S. citizens. No matter the reaction, though, it's another step forward for the group known as Student Advocates for Higher Education, which has challenged lawmakers to pass a bill granting certain illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship if they graduate from college.

Group members have repeatedly made headlines during the past year. First they took part in a weeklong fast last summer to draw attention to the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, prompting conservative radio host Michael Savage to suggest they starve to death. They also rallied outside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office to draw attention to a failed congressional vote on the DREAM Act.

Such activism is nothing new, but experts say this movement, led by illegal immigrants enrolled in college, is the latest phenomenon to grow from marches held across the country in 2006 to call attention to immigration reform.

Those marches, experts believe, may have played a role in the unprecedented number of Latinos who turned out to vote in California's Democratic presidential primary Feb. 5.

"It encouraged and politicized people," said Stanford University history Professor Al Camarillo, considered an expert on Latino issues.

Anyone can lead a voter registration drive, academics have noted, but it's unusual for those who are legally barred from participating in democracy to take such strides to play a part in the electoral process.

"They didn't have a say when they were brought" into the country, said Saundra Sifuentes, 28, a paralegal at a downtown San Jose law firm. "They should be able to have a voice now — even if it's through other people."

Carol Joyal, chairwoman of the Immigration Reform Network of Silicon Valley, a group that's calling for stepped-up enforcement of immigration laws, disagrees.

She takes particular issue with the effects of illegal immigration on the country, especially crowded classrooms and congested roadways.

"They're looking at the benefit for themselves rather than what's best for the country," Joyal said of the students.

The 20-member San Jose State student group is hoping to sign up at least 5,000 new voters over the next few months — a small amount, but one members say could play a role in the fight for the White House.

And more importantly, they hope to help elect a president who will move the DREAM Act forward after years of revisions and delays.

The group has not endorsed any candidates, but Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have supported the DREAM Act.

"If this passes, we're done" with our plight, said Alba Cardenas, a 23-year-old San Jose State student whose mother brought her into the U.S. from Mexico as a child and who didn't learn her legal status until she was a teenager.

The Migration Policy Institute estimates that passing the DREAM Act could make as many as

360,000 18- to 24-year-olds eligible for conditional legal status and, if they stay out of trouble for three years after college graduation, citizenship.

Nine states, led by California, allow illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition as long as they meet several requirements, including attending high school for at least three years and graduating. 

It's unknown how many illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition in California, officials said, because the information isn't tracked to protect students' privacy.

Because of their status, the students are not eligible for financial aid, and most must earn tuition — more than $2,000 a semester — on their own.

Ruiz and Cardenas don't hold their status against their parents, saying their time in the United States has given them opportunities they wouldn't have had in Mexico.

"You can't just live in a place and not became a part of it," Ruiz said. "If I were still in Mexico, I wouldn't be who I am today."

Javier Erik Olvera can be reached at 408-920-5704 or jolvera@mercurynews.

com.