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Tania Unzueta

Out and proud: Tania Unzueta may be the most visible undocumented immigrant in the United States. (Photo by: Peter Holderness)

Out of the Shadows, Into the Spotlight

Tania Unzueta may be the most visible undocumented immigrant in the United States.

BY Marie Landau

But I have students who sit in my office and talk about how they can’t go to school, how they’re scared their mom might get deported, how they can’t get a driver’s license, how they wish they could study abroad, how their grandmother is dying in Mexico and they can’t visit her—because they’re undocumented.

Originally from Mexico, 26-year-old Tania Unzueta has been living, working and studying in the United States for 16 years as an undocumented immigrant. As a highly visible member of the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL), which organizes acts of civil disobedience to push for immigration reform, she’s willing to risk deportation for the cause.

In March, Unzueta helped Chicago-based IYJL organize its National Coming Out of the Shadows Day, where undocumented immigrant youth “came out” as “undocumented and unafraid.”

The University of Illinois-Chicago graduate, who has worked for nine years as director of Radio Arte’s youth-training program in Chicago, also organized a May 17 sit-in at Senator John McCain’s office in Tucson, Ariz., where four young immigrants–three of them undocumented–called for passage of the DREAM Act. The DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act would provide undocumented youth a pathway to legalization through college education or two years of military service.

Sit-in participants were arrested and charged with felony trespassing and the undocumented demonstrators were detained and processed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement before being released. As IYJL’s designated spokesperson, Unzueta narrowly avoided arrest when she left McCain’s office to talk with reporters.

On May 29, she joined thousands of protesters in Phoenix marching for the DREAM Act and against S.B. 1070, the state’s new law empowering police officers to detain anyone they suspect is undocumented. She spoke with In These Times about the fight for humane immigration reform.

How did you get involved in the immigration reform movement?

Since we came to the United States from Mexico City in 1994, when I was 10, my whole family has been involved in immigration issues and social justice movements.

When I was about to graduate from high school and applying to college, I couldn’t apply for a lot of scholarships and couldn’t even apply to some of the colleges because I was undocumented. It became obvious that this wasn’t something that was just affecting me. There are 65,000 undocumented students graduating from U.S. high schools every year.

Are there any historical figures who inspire you to do what you’re doing?

I’m very inspired by Harvey Milk. This idea of “coming out” as a political strategy is something we’ve been using in the immigrant-rights movement. If you’re undocumented and you “come out” to your friends and your neighbors, something changes when a person knows that the politics are personal as well. I am also inspired by members of SNCC [Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee] who were active during the Civil Rights Movement, and their idea of young people taking more radical actions.

Do you think the IYJL actions in Arizona were a success?

Yes. First, we got our message across about the DREAM Act. Second, we radicalized some of the tactics: Never in the history of the United States has there been an act of civil disobedience by undocumented people.

What do you feel was the most important outcome of the trip?

Mobilizing the youth base, and creating alternative ways of looking at immigration reform. The reforms that have been proposed up to now have been very heavy on enforcement and militarization of the border. The spotlight on the DREAM Act as an alternative to enforcement and the fact that it’s youth-led is very important.

Did you feel you were risking deportation by going down there?

Yeah. We didn’t know what the atmosphere was going to be like. But we were prepared psychologically and legally to risk deportation. We have lawyers working on our cases. When you stop being afraid, there’s a whole world of possibilities in terms of how much risk you’re willing to take to fight for what you believe is just.

What do you think a sound border policy looks like in the context of comprehensive immigration reform?

That’s a difficult question. It’s important to have a system that acknowledges that there’s a need in the United States for the labor immigrant workers provide, that provides a way for people who are pulled into the economy to do so legally, and that acknowledges that those workers are people who have families and their families need access to education. There needs to be a way for people who are already here to become legal, and for those who come because they’re pulled by the economy, to have a pathway to citizenship.

It’s also important for the United States to look at the effects of its policies in places like Mexico. If we’re talking about comprehensive reform, we need to look at how the U.S. affects the economy of other countries.

Along the border, the more military you put there, the harder you make it for people to get across the border, and the easier it is for people to die. You can’t block off the border until you figure out why people migrate here to begin with. As long as there are reasons for people to move, they’re going to move. If you make it harder for people to get here, the only thing you’re doing is making it harder for people to survive.

How should drug violence and trafficking along the borders be addressed in the context of humane immigration reform?

Most people who come to the United States are not drug traffickers. It’s a huge issue, but you have to look at the root causes. If there was no market for them, people wouldn’t be taking drugs across the border. Why is the United States such a huge consumer of drugs? That’s a huge question. But the reason people come here undocumented is because there’s no way for them to come documented. If there was a better way to figure out who can and who can’t come to the U.S.–maybe if you gave workers opportunities to come with their families legally–they wouldn’t have to come undocumented, so that reduces the number of people you would have to protect the border from to begin with.

Why is passage of the DREAM Act so important to immigration reform?

Passing the DREAM Act would build a stronger base of young people who would no longer be afraid of being deported, who could work, who could fully contribute to their communities, who could then fight for a more comprehensive approach to immigration reform.

In my work at Radio Arte, I work with a huge number of undocumented young people and it’s been a long time since it’s stopped being about me.

I graduated from college, I’m going to grad school in the fall, I’ve been able to raise the money to go to grad school, and although it’s been hard to find a job, I feel like I’ve been able to do just fine.

But I have students who sit in my office and talk about how they can’t go to school, how they’re scared their mom might get deported, how they can’t get a driver’s license, how they wish they could study abroad, how their grandmother is dying in Mexico and they can’t visit her–because they’re undocumented. So if there’s a chance to pass the DREAM Act and at least fix the problems of those people, that would be amazing.

In terms of your work with IYJL, what are the next steps for the immigration reform movement?

We’re still organizing solidarity actions with Arizona. And just like there were civil disobediences in Arizona, there will be more direct actions and civil disobediences. Today, four students were arrested in Los Angeles at Sen. Diane Feinstein’s office. They’re also calling for the DREAM Act and are part of the campaign we started building in Arizona.

Also, several of us will be going to help organize people in Maine and in Kentucky, where there isn’t a strong community supporting immigrant rights. And we’ve been talking to universities about being equal opportunity universities for undocumented people.

If the DREAM Act is passed, what are the next steps? What does ideal immigration reform look like?

I think there are two separate answers to that. One, if the DREAM Act passes, there needs to be a strong push for young people to be able to go to college, because the DREAM Act doesn’t guarantee you can go to college. There’s also the military option, and I think it would be horrible if undocumented young people were funneled into the military. There needs to be huge support from the community for young people to pick college as a way to qualify for the DREAM Act.

Of course, the DREAM Act is a chance for us to become documented, but it doesn’t mean that our communities aren’t oppressed anymore. We need to continue building movements and addressing local issues with immigrant communities. In terms of larger immigration reform, if the DREAM Act passes, we need to come together as a community and figure out the best way young people with legal rights can support immigration reform. Ideally, it would be something that doesn’t come with so much enforcement and criminalization.

Marie Landau, a graduate of The Evergreen State College, is a summer 2010 editorial intern.

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