Immigrant activist Erika Andiola told a hushed audience at a conference Tuesday of the times she and her family literally sat "in the shadows," all lights turned off in their Phoenix home, because they feared federal agents were coming to get them.
She recalled the despair she felt when the knock on the door came on an unexpected day in 2013, and the authorities took her mother and brother to deport them back to Mexico.
Andiola, 28, exempted from deportation under an order for minors issued by President Barack Obama, stayed in Arizona. By then an activist, she mounted a social media campaign, took her message to the media and was able to stop the deportations.
"I can tell you that that didn't happen out of the blue," Andiola told more than 300 people gathered at The College at Old Westbury -- many of them Long Island high school students without full legal status. "It was unity, it was organizing, it was people coming together to support me."
Her story and those of other speakers were intended to encourage high school students to speak up and work for change. For years, advocates have sought passage of federal legislation granting legal status to young immigrants who came illegally to the United States as minors or stayed here without proper documentation. They also want a broader legalization program that would benefit their parents and other relatives.
In New York, the fight has centered on building support for a state law allowing these young unauthorized immigrants, who call themselves "Dreamers," to get state-funded tuition assistance for college.
All those measures have been considered but have stalled or been defeated in Congress or the State Legislature.
Osman Canales, community organizer with Long Island Immigrant Student Advocates, the group that planned the conference, said the gathering aimed to help students facing an uncertain future "to feel empowered" and "to not be afraid and not to be ashamed" for seeking a better future here.
Francis Madi, 26, of Hempstead, said she has acted on her convictions.
Madi, originally from Venezuela, said she has been "undocumented since 2004, unafraid since around 2008, and unapologetic" since birth. She became an activist around 2007. "The way to bring change is to think as a community," she said.
Some of the students said the presentations inspired them to seek immigration reforms.
"You have to bring your passion to it. It's not something you do just for yourself, but for other people," said Edenilson Martinez, 17, a Brentwood High School senior who came here two years ago from El Salvador. "We have to think about the future, and these people did it and you see it's possible."
Robin Carreto, 19, a Southampton High School senior who came from Guatemala two years ago, said he worries how his lack of documentation will affect getting into college or access to tuition aid, but felt motivated by the talks. He wants to be a physician.
"One of the speakers today said we are more powerful than we think, and I agree with that," Carreto said. "We need to work hard, but we can do it."
The Rev. Calvin O. Butts III, the college's president, quoted from and paraphrased the famous Langston Hughes poem "Harlem" in giving his support to the young immigrants.
"We know the poem that says what happens to a dream deferred. 'Does it dry out like a raisin in the sun?' " he said. "Does it sag like a heavy load? Or does it explode? We've got to be careful that we help our sisters and brothers realize their dreams."