Tania Unzueta has kept a secret for more than 10 years and is finally ready to come clean: She's an illegal immigrant.
The 26-year-old University of Illinois at Chicago graduate was among dozens of young illegal immigrants who publicly "came out" during protests Wednesday in several cities. They hope their stories will call attention to the plight of an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S. and renew calls for federal reform -- even at the risk of deportation.
"It's scary on one hand, but it's also liberating," said Unzueta, of Chicago, one of eight people who disclosed their immigration status at a downtown ceremony. "I feel like I've been hiding for so long."
Several hundred people, many holding American flags and signs that read "Undocumented and Unafraid," observed as each of the eight took the microphone and vowed to continue telling others about their status.
Students took similar approaches Wednesday in Detroit, New York and at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., with more events in the coming weeks in Los Angeles and New York. Some activists dubbed Wednesday a "National Coming Out Day" and quoted gay rights activists, like the late Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials, in their testimonies.
One student group, the New York State Youth Leadership Council, posted an illegal immigrant student's bio and photograph online and a vow to continue adding more.
Experts say the public disclosure tactic is on the rise, especially among younger activists. Many have been marching, writing letters and calling legislators since the immigrant rights movement was re-energized in 2006, when more than a million people marched in cities nationwide to fight against a bill that was considered anti-immigrant.
The next step, they say, is public disclosure.
Unzueta and others also hope that President Barack Obama makes good this year on his promise to tackle immigration reform and support Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who has again introduced a bill to allow high school graduates to continue their education or join the military as a way to become legal immigrants. The bill has failed repeatedly since 2001.
"There's a sense of urgency," Unzueta said. "We're angry. We're frustrated. We thought this would be a good strategy to get our community mobilized."
Each year, about 65,000 illegal immigrants graduate from U.S. high schools, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington-based research group. Some researchers estimate the young adult population, those aged 18 to 24, is approximately 3.2 million -- and those are the illegal immigrants in limbo. Many were brought to the U.S. as children by their parents and have closer ties to U.S. culture than to their native countries.
Because they're not citizens, they live in constant fear of getting kicked out of college, losing scholarships and not being able to apply for jobs.
That was the case for Isabel, 18, a Boston resident at Harvard's ceremony Wednesday night who said she earned a private high school scholarship but cannot afford college. Her immigration status prevents her from receiving financial aid.
Isabel, who declined to give her last name, said she came with her parents from the Dominican Republic on a tourist visa in 2000, which has since expired. Her three younger sisters were born in the U.S., but her attemps for legal status failed because of miscommunications with a lawyer, she said.
"The hardest part is seeing my parents," she said. "They came here so I could have a better future, but they see me struggling. I can't go to school."
There are few ways to become a U.S. citizen or obtain long-term visas without significant life disruptions. Most immigrants would have to return to their native countries to apply for legal U.S. status or hope that a legislator sponsors a personal bill.
Neither route is quick or easy, as Unzueta knows personally. She came to the U.S. with her family in 1994 on a tourist visa, which expired in 1999. She went back to Mexico in 2001 and tried to get a student visa but was denied. After several attempts -- including a failed personal bill by Durbin -- she received a one-year humanitarian visa in 2002 and started college. The visa was not renewed. She said she now works at a nonprofit.
She knows that she could be found out at any time.
But she and others have been inspired by a group of students marching from Miami to Washington for a March 21 rally, along with high-profile cases like that of Miami-Dade College graduate Walter Lara in Florida. The Argentina native was 3 when he was brought to the U.S. He was arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents last February and faces deportation this summer. His case has inspired numerous YouTube videos and Facebook pages.
"Students began to see that they could use that (public disclosure) as a tool," said William Perez, an education professor at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, Calif. "They're putting it all on the line, they're risking deportation and certainly the consequences can be very dire."
That was evident at the Chicago event, where Unzueta was the only protester among the eight speakers who agreed to reveal her last name.
The students in Chicago have prepared for what may happen if they're apprehended. They've been instructed not to talk to ICE agents, especially without an attorney. While ICE agents historically haven't gone after individuals, especially in public places, Unzueta isn't at ease.
She said she is preparing for the consequences, including possibly losing out on a UIC master's degree program to which she's been accepted.
"It's a little scary," she said. "But I know this is something that's energizing a lot of people."