It was exhilarating for Maricela Aguilar to stand on the steps of the federal courthouse one day last summer and reveal for the first time in public that she is an illegal immigrant.

 “It’s all about losing that shame of who you are,” Ms. Aguilar, a college student who was born in Mexico but has lived in the United States without legal documents since she was 3 years old, said of her “coming out” at a rally in June.

Those were heady times for thousands of immigrant students who declared their illegal status during a nationwide campaign for a bill in Congress...

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