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Amid Arizona immigration protests, a new generation dreams of the Dream Act

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Among the 10,000 or so protesters who gathered in front of the state Capitol here last weekend under a scorching sun, one group stood out. Despite the heat, they wore graduation caps and gowns in shiny royal blue and sunburst yellow.

They were graduates of American colleges, young people who mostly grew up in the United States, accidental Americans who just happen to be living here illegally.

Like the rest of the crowd, they came to protest Arizona’s controversial new immigration enforcement law, but they also sought recognition of a long-sought goal — passage of the Dream Act, federal legislation that would provide a path toward legal status for people like them, undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children by their parents.

Unlike their parents, however, these young people aren’t keeping quiet about their immigration status. They are staging protests around the country, risking arrest and deportation. It’s something their parents, for the most part, would never thinkof doing. But as this group of mostly 20-somethings sees it, they are American in every way — except on paper. They have lived in the United States for at least 10 years. They speak perfect English and attended grade schools and universities here. They have American friends, American lifestyles and typical American sensibilities.

And what’s more American than speaking out?

“In school we learned that if you do everything right and live by the rules, that you’ll be rewarded, that everything will pay off, that you can be whatever you want to be,” said Lizbeth Mateo, 25, who came to this country from Mexico at age 14. “We really believed that. We never felt different from other American kids, and now we want to start contributing to our country and make our country better.”