Immigration activists remain held in Arizona

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By Andrew Michalscheck By Andrew Michalscheck

PHOENIX (AP) -- Nine activists remained in custody in Arizona nearly a week after attempting to cross the border from Mexico into the U.S., asking to be allowed to remain on humanitarian grounds in a protest against American immigration policies, their attorney said Friday.

Margo Cowan, a Tucson-based lawyer who works for the Pima County public defender's office, said she is asking the U.S. government to allow the detainees to remain in the United States on what's known as humanitarian parole, essentially to permit admission to the country because "their presence in America will serve an important public interest."

She said all nine have been detained since crossing the border Monday in Nogales and they remained held at the Eloy Detention Center, about 70 miles south of Phoenix.

"It's shameful that they're holding them," said Cowan, who is representing the detainees as a private attorney and not in her capacity as a county employee.

She said they are on a hunger strike because authorities are limiting their telephone privileges.

"Their calls are being blocked," Cowan said Friday.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials in Phoenix issued a statement Friday night saying "the detainees in question were issued their phone PIN codes Thursday morning and have access to phones from 6:00 a.m. until 9:30 p.m. daily in accordance with our detention standards."

ICE officials added that "due to privacy laws, we are prohibited from discussing specific cases."

Cowan said she also is seeking asylum in the U.S. for all nine should the government deny their requests for humanitarian parole. U.S. officials are expected to interview the activists Monday and Tuesday as they consider the request, she said.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection, meanwhile, declined to discuss specifics of the case.

"The United States has been and continues to be a welcoming nation," CBP spokesman Michael Friel said Friday. "Under U.S. immigration law ... applicants for admission bear the burden of proof to establish that they are clearly eligible to enter the United States. In order to demonstrate that they are admissible, the applicant must overcome all grounds of inadmissibility."

Mohammad Abdollahi, co-founder of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, said all nine of the detainees will remain on a hunger strike until their release.

He said officials at the detention center warned them they would be placed in solitary confinement if they don't start eating.

Protests of the detentions were being staged across the country.

Supporters spoke Friday at a news conference and prayer vigil in Wichita, Kan., demanding the release of the detainees.

Among those in attendance were the sisters of Claudia Amaro, 37, who they say was brought illegally into the U.S. as a child after her father was murdered in Mexico. The sisters said the woman lived in Kansas for more than 17 years but returned to Mexico after her husband's deportation, and now wants to come back to America.

In Chicago, a small group of activists has been staging a sit-in at U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez's office. Gutierrez spokesman Douglas Rivlin said the protesters have been there since midday Thursday. Staff stayed with them overnight and brought them breakfast.

The protesters are demanding the release of the detained activists as they try to draw awareness to the increase in deportations.

On Thursday, Gutierrez and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, of Colorado, sent a letter of protest to President Barack Obama, expressing concern over the detainment of the activists.

"We urge you to release the DREAMers detained on the U.S. border in Arizona and allow them to rejoin their families," the Democratic congressmen wrote.

"While we are aware that the White House received it, we have received no reply," Rivlin said Friday.

The so-called DREAMers are pushing for legislation being considered in Congress to offer eventual citizenship to some immigrants brought illegally to the U.S. as children.

House Republicans took a tentative step toward offering citizenship to some unauthorized immigrants this week who fit into this category, but they hit an immediate wall of resistance from the White House on down as Democrats said it wasn't enough.

The dismissive reaction to the Republican proposal underscored the difficulties of finding any compromise in the Republican-led House of Representatives on the issue of immigration reform.

The so-called DREAM Act, which aimed to provide just such a path to citizenship for those children, passed the House in 2010 when it was controlled by Democrats, but was blocked by Senate Republicans.

"Legalizing only the DREAMers is not enough," Gutierrez, who is a leading Democratic advocate for immigration reform in the House, said earlier this week in Washington. "I cannot imagine for one minute that Republicans, who also honor the sanctity of families, want to legalize the children, but leave the rest of the family vulnerable."

Cowan said U.S. government officials have yet to respond to any of her letters or filings on behalf of the detainees.

Three of the activists left the U.S. and traveled to Mexico expressly to participate in the protest on Monday. All of them were apparently raised in the United States after having been brought to the country by their parents who entered illegally.

Still, Cowan said, due to their long-standing ties to the U.S. and lack of any cultural connection to Mexico, they should be allowed entry.

"One young woman was a valedictorian at her high school. Another is going to start law school here in a couple of weeks," she said. "These are all young people who have just engaged in tremendous public service activity."