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“My name is Sharanitha and I am undocumented, unafraid, unapologetic, and I too am UIC.”
Applause erupted for Sharanitha in the quad at the University of Illinois, Chicago, during a “Coming Out of the Shadows” rally, where she and other undocumented students addressed the crowd. The event served as a stage for UIC students to publicly share their immigration statuses with the wider university community and to call for an end to deportations.
The Immigrant Youth Justice League, a Chicago-based activist group led by undocumented young people, collaborates with undocumented student groups to organize a series of such events every spring on campuses across Illinois, from NIU to IIT. But the UIC rally was a poignant reminder of the organization’s roots on the campus where the IYJL was born.
The IYJL was founded in 2009 when UIC junior Rigo Padilla was served an order of deportation following a DUI arrest. An honors student with an otherwise clean record, Padilla hadn’t been outside of the U.S. since his parents brought him from Mexico to Chicago at age six. With the support of fellow undocumented UIC students Reyna Wences and Tania Unzueta, Padilla began to fight his deportation order.
And after nearly a year of resistance that combined boots-on-the-ground protests and Internet campaigning, the Department of Homeland Security stayed Padilla’s deportation.
But the debate around Padilla’s struggle quickly had become a flashpoint for protest in Chicago at a time when the media had begun to flare up over the fate of other childhood arrivals.
During the campaign, Padilla saw the need for organized leadership among undocumented youth in the immigration movement, and he—along with Unzueta and Wences—officially formed the IYJL. Though he has since graduated UIC, Padilla’s work with the IYJL continues.
“Early on [IYJL] focused on legislation,” he tells In These Times. “Things like the federal DREAM Act and the Illinois DREAM Act. But more recently, it’s been focused on two things: stopping deportations and higher education.”
Key to those goals has been IYJL’s National Coming Out of the Shadows campaign. The idea of the rallies came about in 2010, when Padilla says young undocumented immigrants around the country decided to claim a space in the immigration movement they felt lacked a space or a voice for them.
According to Padilla, the IYJL wanted to avoid the dynamic of typical immigration rallies, with their seemingly required quota of elected officials, union leaders and nonprofit CEOs. They felt that the stories of undocumented people were afterthoughts in that formula. So IYJL decided to begin to bring these stories to the forefront of the immigration debate.
And that’s the aim organizers hope to serve with the “Coming Out” rallies. Padilla believes that many Americans find it difficult to relate to the immigration issue, and hopes the campaign will lend humanity and immediacy to a seemingly distant debate.
When IYJL began to address the issue, Padilla says, “it was at a time when you always saw the same image in the news, of the same immigrants crossing the same part of the border in this really old video, and the same gang sleeves showing a few gang members … So part of that was also challenging the public image.”
For creating these rallies and for their other activities in the IYJL, Padilla, Wences, and Unzueta won a Freedom From Fear Award in 2011 for “Extraordinary Acts of Courage on Behalf of Immigrants and Refugees.” Since then, the organization has tirelessly kept going.
While most of the student body is generally supportive of the IYJL, occasional flare-ups of vandalism against IYJL campaigns have gone unpunished by the administration. In February of 2013, when a poster for an IYJL event was tagged with the phrase “fucking illegals,” the administration waited a full month to respond before announcing through the university’s massmail program that they were aware the event had taken place. Two months later, two heavy-duty-laminated posters from the “Undocumented and Unafraid” series were torn off of a building on campus. Part of a collaboration between the IYJL and the Hull House, the posters featured portraits of students who had come out as undocumented. The vandalism was interpreted by the IYJL as an attack on undocumented students.
Lulu Martinez, one of the students who came out at the UIC rally, called the vandalism an “indication of anti-immigrant sentiment on campus,” and was disappointed by the administration’s nonchalant reaction to the incident.
After the incident, Yaxal Sobrevilla, a UIC senior and IYJL organizer, started talking with other undocumented UIC students about getting organized. Sobrevilla went on to help form the Fearless Undocumented Alliance, a group for undocumented UIC students. The FUA collaborates with the IYJL and hosted the recent UIC Coming Out event. Many of its members were speakers, including Sobrevilla.
“The point of [the event] was to let out a lot of the things that we’d been holding back, or at least we’d been told not to talk about,” says Sobrevilla, adding that she often felt “otherized” by the administrators who were supposed to assist her.
Public proclamations of undocumented status are especially powerful on college campuses like UIC, which offer scholarship opportunities that are all buy inaccessible for undocumented students. Last April, UIC’s Chancellor Paula Allen-Meares issued a Statement on Immigration in which she expressed support for undocumented students and immigration reform, but reminded readers that, “federal law prohibits awarding undocumented students support that is not mandated by state law.” Since the Illinois DREAM Act is not federal law, many Illinois universities still have policies which provide undocumented students barebones access to aid. UIC and NIU, for example, recently instituted “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies. If a student doesn’t reveal her undocumented status, then she might potentially be eligible for what tends to be a very small amount of aid for high-achieving students, though UIC’s Office of Special Student Scholarships does offers a list of third-party scholarships that undocumented students may qualify for.
“On the one hand,” says Padilla, “they’re saying, ‘we have very little resources for you, and only a few of you, but only if you stay quiet and don’t speak up or say anything about who you are.’” The policies provide an ironic counterweight to the fact that undocumented students are more likely to require need-based aid, a reality they can’t address in the admissions process.
UIC’s Office of Financial Aid could not be reached for comment on the policies.
Despite UIC’s lack of infrastructure and support for its undocumented students, the IYJL’s focus remains on pushing the Obama administration to stop deportations, a demand reflected in the broader immigration movement. Like the students of IYJL, most immigrant advocates are critical of the enforcement-heavy Senate immigration bill.
The campaign efforts have already impacted campus life for undocumented students at UIC. And for the time being though, a new generation of undocumented activists enters the fray.
For Sobrevilla, one of the most encouraging signs of the movement’s growth is the number of students that organizers to share their own undocumented status and ask how they can get involved.
At the UIC event, a freshman took the mic.
“I urge all undocumented students to come out of the shadows,” she said. “To come together no matter your background or nationality. We need to be united and demand that are our needs are met. You are not alone! My name is Jocelyn. I’m undocumented, unafraid, unapologetic…and I too am UIC.”