At the recent Netroots Nation conference in Minneapolis, local Tania Unzueta, Reyna Wences and Rigo Padilla are three LGBTQA individuals who have been selected to receive the Freedom from Fear Award. Inspired by the LGBTQ movement, they formed the Immigrant Youth Justice League after they successfully stopped the deportation of Padilla, an ally of the LGBT community, in 2009. They have organized themselves and inspired other undocumented individuals to publicly declare themselves "undocumented and unafraid."
The trio met when Unzueta was working at a radio station called Radio Arte that was owned by the National Museum of Mexican Art. She was working as a journalism training instructor when Wences and Padilla came to her as students. As part of the teaching program Unzueta would discuss social issues that included immigration. At different times both Wences and Padilla confided to her that they were undocumented individuals, at which point Unzueta admitted that she was as well.
Padilla became part of the deportation process when he ran a stop sign and was arrested by police for not having a driver's license. Although Chicago is a "sanctuary city"meaning that local police officers are not supposed to inquire about immigration statuswhen Padilla was registered in Cook County Jail his information was sent to the federal government, who identified him as undocumented.
When Padilla went to court, the immigration judge told him that there was nothing he could do and set his deportation date for Dec. 16, 2010. In order to prevent his deportation the trio protested and campaigned to legislators on the local and federal levels. They were able to obtain a deferred action for Padillameaning he must return each year to see if he should be deported.
During the protesting of Padilla's deportation, the trio realized that the support they were receiving came mostly from undocumented youth who understood that it was a situation that any of them could have been in. As the group started talking to each other and to their supporters they realized that there was not an organization that represented who they were and what they believed in. They did not have a space to talk about what it meant to be undocumented so the trio organized the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL). They created a space to "come out" as undocumented and to face the fears of what that means as an organization.
Since Padilla's protest the group has branched out to other cases. Unzueta said, "Whenever there is a campaign around someone's case, particularly undocumented young people, we have been able to stop their cases. It has become easier since Rigo's case." Along with helping to stop several deportations, they have also attended high schools to educate counselors on the resources and information available to undocumented youth.
IYJL has embarked on projects in Chicago to raise awareness and support of undocumented individuals and in Washington to lobby for the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act. IYJL is composed of volunteers and operates as a non-profit organization in the community, using donated office space. They fund their projects through donations and through award money group members have received.
One of IYJL's strategies for moving forward includes coming out as undocumented. The trio started talking about how saying the word "undocumented" out loud helped them to support and talk to each other about their fears. They started using the strategy to talk to people, with the goal of changing minds.
Unzueta said, "For myself, coming out as queer has helped me come out as undocumented. It helped me understand what that feels like. When I was coming out as queer it was hard but I had to say it because it's me. It is part of my experience. Coming out as undocumented is similar to that experience."
Besides working and advocating immigrant legislation, the group is working locally to have conversations about undocumented LGBTQ individuals. Wences said, "Sometimes LGBTQ people forget that LGBTQ people are also immigrants or that immigrants forget that immigrants can also be LGBTQ; it goes both ways. It is a conversation that needs to be had and that is one of the things we are working on."
On receiving the Freedom from Fear Award Wences said, "I felt excited and happy knowing that the work that IYJL is doing is being recognized but at the same time I think we are all courageous. We are all fighting for the same thing and we are all standing up and challenging that fear that we have." Unzueta noted, "It's great to be recognized for the work that we have done. I don't really think that anyone who does courageous acts is really free from fear but I think that we take action despite fear."
Padilla was unavailable for comment by press deadline.