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Growing up undocumented

 StreetWise (USA) 17 May 2019

(Originally published: 03/2010) In Chuck Taylors and a plaid shirt, Reyna seems completely America. But one thing hasn’t changed: Reyna still knows that she and her family could be deported at any time. Though she’s called Chicago her home since her parents brought her here in 2000, she speaks English without an accent and scored a 30 on her ACT, she’s undocumented—and therefore could be removed at any time. Standing before cameras belonging to Telemundo and Univision and reporters from Hoy and the Chicago Tribune, Reyna is speaking at the first press conference of the Immigrant Justice Youth League, or IYJL. It’s a grassroots organization which she helped found, devoted to bringing a voice to undocumented youth, promoting education and understanding about their situation, and pushing for national immigration reform. With an estimated 65,000 undocumented immigrant teenagers graduating from U.S. high schools every year, undocumented youth need recognition.  - By Brenna Daldorph


Courtesy of StreetWise

November 2000


All around the brightly lit classroom, fourth graders scribble on worksheets, colouring in turkeys and pilgrims. Hunched over two wooden desks in the back of the room are two children. They sit separately from the other kids, silently working as the others giggle and discuss the three things they're most thankful for.


As she sets down her coloured pencils, nine-year-old Reyna finally whispers to her friend, "What did you write?" The words are in Spanish. Reyna's English isn't very good yet.


Rogelio pushes his worksheet over to her. Reyna skims over numbers one and two, but number three stands out like it's etched in bold letters: "I'm thankful for crossing the border, for having my family here safely."


Reyna's stomach drops. Her mother told her never to talk about her status. Hadn't Rogelio's family warned him as well?


Her mother had drilled that warning into her as soon as she decided to take Reyna and her younger brother north for a better life. The repeated warning haunted Reyna. Already the awkward new kid, she was afraid that if the other kids found out they'd turn her in.


"My family told me don't tell anyone," Reyna says to Rogelio in a quiet, choked voice. "Maybe a teacher will read that and they'll take you back."


His eyes widen.


"I didn't know people could do that to us."


"Yeah. They can."


Rogelio slowly erases his words. From then on, it will be their secret. No one else will know.


Reyna went back to colouring and thought about her mother, who looked for jobs as she sat in the tiny attic the entire family shared and called home; her baby brother, who was in day care; and her stepfather, an engineer who did factory work to support the family. Reyna prayed that nothing would happen to them before she returned home from school.


As the years went by, she never talked about her status. Instead she hid it carefully, bearing the weight of her secret in an effort to appear normal. She tried, but she knew she was different.



January 2010


Reyna stands behind a lectern at Pilsen's Casa Michoacan and tells her story to the assembled crowd. She's 19 now, and many things have changed.


Over the past 10 years, hard work has brought her academic success and quiet confidence. In Chuck Taylors and a plaid shirt, she now seems more American than Mexican. But one thing hasn't changed: Reyna still knows that she and her family could be deported at any time. Though she's called Chicago her home since her parents brought her here in 2000 and she speaks English without an accent and she scored a 30 on her ACT, she's undocumented-and therefore could be removed at any time.


As she speaks, cameras belonging to Telemundo and Univision roll in the background and reporters from Hoy and the Chicago Tribune take notes, covering the first press conference of the Immigrant Justice Youth League, or IYJL. It's a grassroots organization Reyna helped found that's devoted to bringing a voice to undocumented youth, promoting education and understanding about their situation, and pushing for national immigration reform.


Since its birth only a few months ago, IYJL has become a vocal and important part of the growing immigration reform struggle in Chicago. With its large Latino population, the city has become a hot spot for a growing number of voters who are frustrated by the Obama administration's lack of attention to immigration reform.


Members of IYJL perch on the edge of the stage behind Reyna. They look like any other college-age students in the United States: skinny jeans, boots, floppy hair. But each of them shares a story similar to Reyna's. Each has had dreams deferred by their legal status. Together they're speaking out, hoping to mobilize the community toward immigration reform.


"We're not doing it because we're scared," said IYJL member Tania Unzueta. "We're doing it because we think it's necessary."



Reyna's story: undocumented students


These young people are not alone. In fact an estimated 65,000 undocumented immigrant teenagers graduate from U.S. high schools every year, according to the Web site for the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act. The DREAM Act is a bill that would provide undocumented youth a path to citizenship.


Many undocumented immigrants who are brought to the U.S. as children grow up like any other American, until adolescence forces them to confront their marginalized status. Applications for driver's licenses, jobs, and college loans require something they don't have: a nine-digit social security number.


Reyna first encountered the issue in high school, when her friends began doing things she couldn't. As she encountered barrier after barrier, the visceral fear of her childhood slowly turned to frustration.


"Everything came down; it just fell apart," Reyna said. "I wasn't 'feeling' school anymore. You know, I'm undocumented - why does it matter?"


Luckily, support came just when she needed it. Reyna was in high school when she finally connected with other students like her - students who later became the core group of IYJL. She signed up for Radio Arte, a local program sponsored by the National Museum of Mexican Art that trains young Latinos to work in broadcast media. Reyna "came out," as she likes to say to her Radio Arte peers, many of whom were also undocumented. It was the first time she accepted her identity as an undocumented person.


Around that time she also got the guidance she needed to apply to college. Though she couldn't receive any federal loans, she was eligible for in-state tuition; Illinois is one of only six states to offer that option to undocumented students who've gone to high school in the state. She enrolled at the University of Illinois at Chicago to pursue a degree in gender and women's studies.


But that dream was only a small hiatus from the reality of Reyna's status. Even with in-state tuition, she had to drop out after her first semester.


"I can't get loans," she said. "Money at home is tight. I'm nine numbers away from getting an education."


But lack of higher education isn't the only challenge Reyna and her friends have to face. There's also the constant fear of deportation.


"I just want to leave my house knowing that I'll come home at night," she said.


That threat became even clearer to her when she met Rigo Padilla, who was in the process of being deported.



Rigo's story


At the time a 21-year-old UIC student and member of Radio Arte, Rigo was driving home from watching a football game and drinking beer with some friends when he ran a stop sign. Next thing he knew, he had a deportation order.


As soon as his Radio Arte teacher, Tania Unzueta, heard about his troubles, she offered Rigo support and advice, even attending his immigration court meetings. By the time summer arrived, however, they both realized there were no legal options left to cancel his deportation. The only hope they held onto was mobilizing the community on his behalf.


As soon as Reyna and her friends heard about the deportation order, they knew they couldn't stay in the shadows any longer. They had to speak up. However, the fact that Rigo was arrested for a DUI made people unwilling to support his case.


"There was this idea that if you were going to fight against a deportation, you had to have a perfect immigrant to hold up," Tania said. "Rigo wasn't perfect. But not everyone who gets a DUI gets sent to a country where they don't know anyone and barely speak the language."


One organization the students contacted was the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, or ICIRR.


Morale at ICIRR was low. They had marched in 2006. They had mobilized to elect Barack Obama for president on the promise of immigration reform. Yet they were continuing to see families separated. And with no legislation on the horizon, they were seeing reform slip as a national priority.


When they first heard about Rigo's case, the ICIRR staff, like many others, thought the DUI on his record rendered his case hopeless. But they were impressed by the young people who were committed to helping him.


"With youth there is a boldness, a fresh vision and push. The youth say, 'No, we have to fight, even for a kid who was caught drinking and driving,'" said Ashley Moy-Wooten, an organizer at ICIRR. "We were all thinking about strategy and images and wondering how we were going to win this. This was a picture of the 'typical drunk Mexican.' But we were compelled by the youths' energy and their willingness to do whatever it takes."


And as soon as the staff got to know the youths, they decided it was a battle they had to fight.


"It all comes down to some individual relationships," Moy-Wooten said. "There are many cases all the time, but Rigo was someone close to us."


ICIRR decided to be up front about the DUI arrest in their press campaign. And much to their surprise, media coverage was immediate and positive.


"Media reacts when they see youth at the forefront," said Moy-Wooten. "We were not expecting this. But seeing youth-seeing how bright Rigo is and how he has been a great contributor to the community-worked."


The students held street rallies and made phone calls on Rigo's behalf. They sent more than 18,000 faxes to Congress and garnered a lot of attention from the press. They tapped into the national movement to stop the deportation of students.


They also started meeting as an independent youth group. "There was this idea that we wanted to do more than just fight for Rigo-we wanted our work to be more long-term," Tania said.


In the end Rigo won the support of five members of Congress from Illinois. One of them, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (9th District), offered a private bill to cancel his deportation. The Chicago City Council also passed a resolution calling for the cancellation of his removal.


On December 10 Rigo received a yearlong stay of his deportation order. He was one of only five students nationwide to receive a stay last year.



IYJL today


On a Sunday afternoon in February, the students meet in a ground-floor room at Radio Arte, the program that brought them all together. They sit around tables, wearing coats to keep warm in the cement-floored room.


Today, the debate is electric: everyone is excited for IYJL's biggest project yet, a student-led rally to be held on March 10. The students, with the help of ICIRR, want to bring together thousands of community members and allies to march in favour of immigration reform. The students are doing all the organizing for the event, and it's not without tension-some students are still worried about the dangers of such a public display.


Though this is their biggest project, the students are involved in many others as well, from phone banking for ICIRR to presenting at schools such as DePaul University, Harold Washington College, Northwestern University, and Oberlin College in Ohio. All of the activities centre on a primary goal: to use their stories to promote immigration reform and changes in the public perception of those who are undocumented.


"It is important to mention that fighting for legislation is not the only thing that needs to happen around immigration," Tania said. "That is why we are so focused on education and outreach."


The outreach has gone extraordinarily well. At the end of last year, IYJL's core group was made up of eight members; at their last meeting, they had 30 attendees. The attendees are both undocumented students and allies. Almost all of them, like Reyna, are eager to join a community, and they're tired of living in fear. It is this exhaustion that makes many of them willing to speak.


"There is a fear," said Tania. "We know that it is a little bit dangerous. But many of us choosing to come out are tired of people around us not knowing the real impact that immigration has on every day of our lives."


That theme is reiterated on the IYJL blog, a space where students upload anonymous audio clips or post their stories. They tell about being denied spots at arts camps, boarding schools, and their dream colleges. They talk about the fear and isolation of growing up undocumented. In one audio clip, entitled "Coming Out," an undocumented student records a conversation where he "comes out" to a close friend. For the first time the friend understands why the undocumented student never had a license and had to cancel their roommate status at UIC.


The idea of stepping out of the shadows-presenting their faces and stories to the world-is key to IYJL's movement. As its members posted on the blog, in a section called "Coming Out of the Shadows," "The political importance and personal empowerment of coming out of the shadows is crucial. Hosting events (dances, panels, etc.) that create safe and welcoming space for undocumented workers and youth is crucial. This will help put the face of the very people that are oppressed at the forefront of the movement."


One such space was created at "Reform: Grassroots Movement and Leadership Training," hosted by IYJL members and ICIRR on Friday, January 29. More than 170 participants shared their stories and discussed how to use their experiences to mobilize other youth for the cause. For IYJL members, seeing so many come together was an incredible success.


"I feel like that's how history happens-it's just [being in] the right place at the right time under the right conditions, and that's where we're at," Tania said. "We were facing the deportation of someone who was close to us and started organizing around that. At the same time, it was the national movement to stop the deportation of students."


IYJL hopes to bring people together on a larger scale: combining the struggles of Chicagoans with those nationwide. They hope many people will participate in their youth-led march on Wednesday, March 10, in the city. The event is a precursor to an even larger protest in Washington, D.C., on March 21.



In the national context


The thousands expected to assemble in the nation's capital are frustrated by the lack of White House action on the issue of immigration reform.


In 2008 Latino voters showed overwhelming support for Barack Obama and were critical in several swing-state victories. A key issue for the 11-million-strong voting bloc was immigration reform.


But since then there has been no concrete progress toward comprehensive reform. Many Latinos were outraged when discussion of immigration reform was reduced to a vague remark more than an hour into the president's State of the Union address on January 27.


As part of this push, many students like those in IYJL have begun to speak out across the nation. They support the DREAM Act offered in the U.S. Senate by senators Richard Durbin (D-IL) and Richard Lugar (R-IN). This legislation would give permanent-resident status to undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. before the age of 15 if they've lived here for at least five years and have graduated from high school, provided they attend college or serve in the military for two years.


IYJL members also support Comprehensive Immigration Reform ASAP, a bill introduced in Congress on December 15 by Rep. Luis Gutierrez (4th District, Illinois). As he described it, the bill is "legislation that secures our nation's economy, keeps families together, and secures our borders while fixing our broken immigration system."


At the press conference, the students encouraged others to support this legislation even if they disagree with certain aspects of it.

"The bill isn't perfect," Reyna said. "But it is something to work with."


The students know this bill has its faults, but they also know it contains the hope that Rigo can stay in the U.S. and finish law school, that Reyna can go to college, and that millions of other young people like them can also accomplish their goals.


"How do I feel?" wrote one such student, David Ramirez, after participating in IYJL's January activities. "Hopeful! Happier."



Coming out of the shadows once and for all


When Reyna speaks out, she does it for herself, but also for her family.


She thinks about her mother, a trained teacher, who's worked at McDonald's for four years. She thinks of her stepfather, a trained engineer, who works at a factory. But mostly she thinks of her 13-year-old brother, Jorge, who's spent almost all his life here and hopes to one day be a doctor. "I am dedicating my time to this so that he doesn't spend nights frustrated and crying because he's denied an education," Reyna said.


And as she said at the press conference, she speaks "para mi, para mi familia y para los 12 milliones de immigrantes que viven en las sombras"-she speaks for herself, for her family, and for the 12 million other immigrants who live in the shadows.

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