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  WINDY CITY TIMES

'Undocumented and Queer' features young activists
by Bronson Pettitt
2018-05-02

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As if on cue, just as undocumented queer youth and activists in Chicago were wrapping up an event in the Chicago History Museum on April 24, a federal judge ruled that protections for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals ( DACA ) recipients were to remain in place.

The decision marked a major blow to the Trump administration's efforts to rescind the DACA program, and means the federal government must accept, for the first time since the rescission was announced in September, new applications from DACA-eligible youth.

The news hadn't yet broke during the "Undocumented and Queer" event, where young adults shared their stories of how they were brought to the United States as children and later came out as LGBTQ and undocumented.

Among them was Antonio Gutierrez, an immigrant-rights activist and organizer who was brought to Chicago at 11 from Guadalajara, Mexico, to be with his father.

The day after he, his sister and mother arrived in 2000, his father sat them down "to talk about what it meant to be illegal," Gutierrez said. "He presented it as something we should be very afraid about and the consequences of telling others about our status."

That conversation stuck with him through the years, but it wasn't until a meeting with his high school counselor to discuss college that he disclosed his status for the first time to anyone outside his family.

"Until that point, my undocumented status was always something personal to me, as much as my queerness," Gutierrez said.

His counselor's only advice was to ask if he'd contemplated returning to Mexico for college. But the next day, she pulled him out of class after discovering he was to be the valedictorian that year.

"I know that was not the same support that many counselors were giving to undocumented students applying to college" at the time, Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez would go on to earn an architecture degree from the Illinois Institute of Technology and later take a job at an architecture firm. But due to a payroll change, his employer discovered his status, and "regardless of how much she wanted to keep me in the firm, she couldn't."

To complicate matters, Gutierrez was ineligible for DACA because of a DUI in 2010—two years before DACA took effect in 2012.

"I felt very defeated," he said. "But that's when I decided enough waiting for others and politicians to make decisions about how I wanted to live my life."

So he joined the Immigrant Youth Justice League and organized marches, fundraising events and rallies.

Like Gutierrez, Egle Malinauskaite was brought to the U.S. as a child. While her parents had business visas, she and her brother came from Lithuania, undocumented.

Years later, Malinauskaite came out as undocumented during a high school poetry reading, inspired by Coming Out of the Shadows Day, an event when undocumented youth came out in public.

"The purpose of the poem was for me to say how much the term 'illegal alien' was like this dark cloud over my head. And people finally understood, 'wow, this person came out as undocumented,'" she said.

With her eyes set on medical school, she was ineligible for financial aid due to her immigration status and took a year off from school. But shortly after that, DACA took effect, she qualified, enrolled in school and graduated with a biomedical engineering degree.

Since then, she's worked to create scholarships for students ineligible for financial aid. These local efforts and organizing are paying off, activists said.

"A lot of us are used to thinking about [immigration] as a federal issue," said political strategist and organizer Tania Unzueta. "Actually, the reality is that our cities, states, schools and a lot of the organizations we work with have the power to change their own policies to be more welcoming and protect undocumented immigrants."

Local actions include activists' work to expose the harm of Chicago's Gang Database, which wrongfully includes immigrants and people of color alleged to be in gangs.

After the 2016 election, Gutierrez and other activists created efforts such as the Albany Park Defense Network to protect immigrants from ICE raids and hold officials accountable.

"When neighbors are aware of each other, we can really thrive together as a community, we can defend our own," Gutierrez said.

At a time when immigration "has been like a roller-coaster," immigration lawyer Michael Jarecki called on others to get involved by volunteering to work with and donating to immigrant-rights groups, providing translation and interpreting services and offering shelter for immigrants weaving their way through the courts.

And, of course, for the LGBTQ community to support DACA recipients.

"The whole reason DACA exists is because LGTBQ individuals, or at least the model as it was mentioned, was shaped off of coming out of the closet for LGBTQ individuals," Jarecki said.


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