'Dream 9' Released on Parole, But Future Unknown

One Dreamer tells the story of the country's immigration detention center.

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Allowed to shower Monday, Wednesday and Friday, the guards would clear the hallways in the Eloy Detention Center in Arizona before they led handcuffed Maria Peniche, 22, down the empty corridor.

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For nearly two weeks, Peniche read to pass the 23 hours a day she spent alone in solitary confinement, her punishment after she encouraged fellow detainees to get legal advice and the crowd began yelling "freedom."

Her offense which sent her to Eloy in the first place was crossing the U.S.-Mexico border illegally.

"They dehumanize you. They make you feel like you murdered someone," Peniche says.

Peniche was released Wednesday on parole along with eight other immigrant activists who call themselves the "Dream 9," but she says the memories of Eloy won't fade.

"It made me mature a lot," Peniche says.

The "Dream 9" were brought to the U.S. illegally as children.

The group crossed the Mexico-Arizona border in July to raise awareness about the plight of the 1.7 million immigrants who have been deported since President Barack Obama took office in 2009. Many wore caps and gowns when they were arrested.

"The 'Dream 9' and their action, and the information of the last week has highlighted the stories of individuals who are not citizens of this country but have a real tie," says Ruthie Epstein, a policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union. "Their experience served to show the immigration detainee system exists and is a quiet and draconian means of immigration enforcement."

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Peniche did not learn she was undocumented until she was a senior in high school and applying to college. In search of affordable higher education opportunities, Peniche and her family returned to Mexico on June 12, 2012, three days before the Obama administration announced its differed action program, which gave immigrants who entered the country illegally as kids , legal status to stay in the U.S.

"If we just waited a little big longer, we would have received the help we needed," Peniche says. "Instead, I was in Mexico where I felt like I didn't even have the right to be safe."

Each of the members of the "Dream 9" will scatter to reunite with families around the country from Arizona to Massachusetts, but their plight is not over.

The tale of the young activists has become a contentious point within the immigration reform movement.

More than 30 members of Congress sent a letter to the White House asking the president to allow the "Dream 9" to stay in the U.S. permanently with legal status.

"These courageous, undocumented young people shine a light on the painful family separation caused by our broken immigration system," Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., wrote in the letter.

But others have criticized the group for pushing the limit saying the "Dream 9" have put the Obama administration in an impossible position.

"It sent a message that is likely to be more of a complication for the people working on reform than the people who are opponents," says David Martin, an immigration law expert at the University of Virginia.

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In the next year or two, each member of the "Dream 9" will each have to make their case for why they should be allowed to stay in the United States and many are not eligible for the Obama administration's differed action program.

While three of the members of the "Dream 9" had returned to Mexico to stage the protest, six of the dreamers apprehended, including Peniche, had returned to Mexico more than a year ago, making them technically ineligible for the program. And some had been deported, which under immigration proceedings typically makes immigrants ineligible to return to the U.S. for 10 years.

Their lawyer, Margo Cowan, has said her clients have strong cases built on the foundation that they were raised in the U.S. and have faced persecution back in Mexico.

Peniche says immigrants raised in the U.S., but are forced back to Mexico are targeted, because while they are Mexican citizens, it doesn't feel that way at all. "It was very frustrating. You were afraid at all times. Even though you are from Mexico, you grew up in the United States," Peniche says. "All you know is how to protect yourself in the U.S. and people target you because they can tell you are a foreigner."