While growing up in the Twin Cities, Hmong-American activist Yia Yang heard mixed messages about his educational prospects.

"My parents always emphasized that higher education was everything," said Yang, 23, who arrived in this country as a toddler. "But in high school no one ever talked about college to me. High school counselors for the most part don't know who you are, don't think you can do it."

Yang became a U.S. citizen in grade school and now works to help those Mariano Espinoza calls "Generation 1 1/2," young people who were brought here by their parents as babies and never gained citizenship.

Yang and Espinoza are part of the Minnesota Immigrant Freedom Network (MIFN), Espinoza as executive director and Yang as a former youth "coach." The nonprofit advocacy group's mission includes improving educational opportunities for immigrant youths, changing the language used in the news media to describe immigrants and lobbying for reform at the state Legislature.

The Minnesota Dream Act, which would provide resident tuition rates at state colleges for all high school students regardless of their parents' immigration status, is among MIFN's biggest goals. The act has foundered in the Legislature under a veto threat by Gov. Pawlenty, although in 2007 he signed a similar bill that provided tuition breaks at technical and community colleges.

"There are so many people who have lived here for 20 years and are not citizens," Espinoza said. "They're in the middle, not from here and not from there. A lot of them don't go to college because of the cost."

With the immigration debate raging nationally and regionally, it's a tough time to try to change that. Minnesota's immigration prosecutions rank 10th nationally and climbed more in the year's first quarter than in any other state, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Pawlenty recently issued an executive order requiring thousands of Minnesota contractors to verify employees' legal status via a controversial federal electronic verification system.

Meanwhile, workplace raids in Austin and Worthington, Minn., and Postville, Iowa, have not only drawn national attention but left hundreds of families without breadwinners -- and created a need for MIFN's services.

The organization helped an Apple Valley resident named Malena, whose husband had been arrested, find a lawyer and provided transportation for her and her children (one of whom is a 10-year-old U.S. citizen).

"The work they [MIFN] do is important, because they help people become more educated about the immigration issues and what it's like to be an immigrant," said Malena, who asked that her last name be withheld for fear of reprisal. "They help get our voices out there. We may not have a vote, but we have a voice."

Matters of semantics

Giving immigrants that voice is a big part of Alondra Espejel's job as MIFN communications director.

"This country was built on immigrants. This idea that we don't belong here. ... " said Espejel, her voice trailing off. "Everybody's eating salsa -- not only eating it but dancing it. Immigrants have revived Lake Street. We make sure everything's running. We cook in the kitchens and clean and work in the yards.

"Everyone has a stake in this."

Some of the battles are about the terminology in which this hot-button issue is debated. "We don't want people to get caught up in the myopic conversation about how 'we are a nation of laws.' Those are harmful ideologies that are not about bringing people together," said Espejel.

But laws matter, said Tim Counts, spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Bloomington. "One of the primary reasons people want to immigrate here is that we are a nation of laws," Counts said. "Unlike many areas of the world, our legal systems have a high degree of integrity. We cannot maintain a generous legal immigration system by excusing widespread illegal immigration."

Espejel and Espinoza have spent a lot of time working with the media to get the expression "illegal immigrant" out of the public vernacular. The term is dehumanizing, Espejel said.

But amid all the furor among adults over the immigration issue, the primary focus of MIFN's four-person staff is on youth. The organization sends "coaches," college students such as Yang and Hannak Worku, to 15 local high schools to talk -- mostly listen, actually -- to students of all backgrounds at weekly Dream Curriculum sessions. The curriculum goes well beyond immigration, said Worku, whose father is from Ethiopia.

"We do talk about immigration, but I really think it's more about the organization reaching out to youth and getting people engaged in their communities," said Worku, a University of Minnesota student who coached at Minneapolis' Roosevelt High. "The activities are all about trying to get students to talk about issues at the school and in their lives, what their dreams were."

Enriching students' lives

The rewards work both ways, said University of Minnesota professor Kathleen Ganely, who teaches the Service Learning class that connected Worku with MIFN.

"This kind of work is not just some altruistic thing. It makes their [the students'] own lives richer," Ganely said. "It takes away fear -- a lot of my students were afraid to go to Lake Street -- opens doors, expands their world vision, radically changes their lives."

Yang, a graduate of Robbinsdale Cooper, has since gone on to earn a degree in political science from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He was so committed to his MIFN work that he spent the last school year coaching at his old high school's bitter rival, Armstrong.

"You want to get them to understand that the immigration story relates to all of us, but mostly you tell them, 'Whatever you have to share, share.'"

Idealism is a luxury, realism a necessity. And no one knows this better than Yang.

"We know everyone's not gonna get together and hold hands and sing 'Kumbaya,'" he said.

Bill Ward • 612-673-7643