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Dear Mr. Trump: My immigrant parents aren't rapists or drug dealers

When Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump says something incendiary about immigrants, it's personal for their children.

The coalition of black, Latino and Muslim student activists that shut down a Trump rally last Friday night at the University of Illinois at Chicago is a sign of a growing national emotional reaction, said Cristina Jimenez, managing director of the immigrant youth-led advocacy group United We Dream.

"Since it’s looking like he will be a nominee, there’s a high level of anxiety about what that will mean for families of the people he has attacked through his rhetoric," Jimenez said, noting that her group has found that young people are mobilizing online and in person in a way they never did to past engagement drives.

For young people who came of age in the era of President Obama, the idea of not being considered fully American is often surprising as well as unsettling. "We’re having a national debate about what we are as a country and what is defined as American,” she said.

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More than 17 million children in the United States are growing up in a home with an immigrant parent. On a recent morning at California State University, Northridge, where more than three-quarters of students are minorities, many students expressed anger and frustration, saying they felt their parents were being disrespected.

CSUN students Francisco Sanchez and Stephany Rodas could almost cite word-for-word -- and refute -- some of the common accusations that Trump has made about Mexican immigrants.

"When Mexico sends its people, they're not sending the best … they're sending people that have lots of problems and they're bringing those problems," Trump said in his June campaign kickoff speech. "They're bringing drugs, they're bringing crime. They're rapists and some, I assume, are good people, but I speak to border guards and they're telling us what we're getting."

Sanchez cannot imagine a description further from his parents. "My parents are both from Mexico, they’re born and raised in Michoacan, and they came to America for the American Dream," he said. His parents are not involved with drugs or crime. Mostly, he said, they work.

Rodas, a psychology student, describes her family in classic immigrant saga terms. Her parents struggled for education and basic necessities in Guatemala, bathing in rivers and walking hours to school. A housecleaner and truck driver, they "are the hardest working people I know," Rodas said.

"So when Donald Trump says when Mexicans, or you could even include Latinos in that, aren’t sending the best, he’s wrong," she said. "Because my parents are the best."

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Accounting student Stephanie Gutierrez, who volunteers helping low-income people with their taxes, took issue with Trump’s allegation that undocumented immigrants are a burden on the economy. His campaign website states that "the annual cost of free tax credits alone paid to illegal immigrants quadrupled to $4.2 billion." (According to Politifact, this statement is a "half-truth" as it does not include the more than three times that amount, $12 billion in payroll taxes, that undocumented immigrants pay into the system.)

Gutierrez said she helps her parents, who are originally from Oaxaca, prepare their taxes — and she knows they do not get the same benefits as a U.S. citizen. "One thing I would love everyone to know is that my parents do pay taxes just like everybody else," she said. "The only difference is they don’t get earned income credit because of their lack of Social Security."

Students with parents from elsewhere in the world also said they wanted to make sure Trump understood their motives and challenges. Eric Licas said his parents left behind their baby daughter in the Philippines and gave up careers in construction and engineering. Initially undocumented, they worked essentially minimum-wage jobs, he said, so that their children could have a better future and "to earn our right and contribute to America."

And Marina Shenouda, a microbiology student who moved with her Egyptian-born parents to the United States via Greece four years ago, watched her father give up a career in construction as an electrical engineer to provide opportunities for her to be able to study the topic of her choosing. Working at a gas station and as a bagger at Super King, she says, they "really struggled very hard to help us succeed here in America.”

And then she adds another element that is fueling this emotional youth reaction. When it’s about your parents, it’s personal.

Shenouda’s other message for Trump about her parents: "I love them so much."

Are you a first-generation American? Share your parents' immigrant story in the comments.  

daniela.gerson@latimes.com

Twitter: @dhgerson

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