On May 1, 2006, 300,000 demonstrators marched through downtown Chicago as part of a nationwide protest of several restrictionist proposals to U.S. immigration policy. Within the federal government, a bill (H.R. 4437) sat before legislators, threatening to criminalize undocumented immigrants and anyone assisting them as felons. On May Day 2014, as they have every year since, demonstrators gathered once again to protest deportations.
H.R. 4437 did not pass, but neither has any meaningful federal reform to immigration law and immigrant rights. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is deporting undocumented immigrants at a rate nearly nine times that of twenty years ago: around 1,200 people are deported each day, for a running total of two million under the Obama administration, the highest number of deportations under any president.
But Illinois is an immigrant-friendly state. And in Chicago, communities have fought for an even more inclusive set of laws, preventing the more severe ICE enforcement protocols from being followed within the city’s jurisdiction. The laws in surrounding counties are less forgiving, but community-based nonprofits, activist networks, and individuals within educational and governmental institutions are fighting in different ways, through different means, to the same end: ni una más. Stop deportations.
Illinois allows for undocumented residents to acquire a driver’s license without a Social Security number, a crucial provision given that the deportation pipeline often begins with a routine traffic stop. The state also passed its own version of the DREAM Act in 2003, granting in-state tuition rates to undocumented students, after the national bill (proposed by Senator Dick Durbin and other legislators in 2001) failed to pass.
Luis Gutierrez has had to learn how to navigate these legislative avenues. Gutierrez is now executive director of Latinos Progresando, a community-based legal services organization that he founded in 1998, when he was just twenty-four years old. Gutierrez grew up in Little Village and is the son of Mexican immigrants. He describes his entry into immigrant-rights work as reluctant.
“My friend at UIC started volunteering with an organization to help people become citizens, and he would always call me and ask me to come volunteer,” says Gutierrez. “He’d call me every week, ‘Come volunteer, come volunteer, come volunteer.’ And then I started to say yes.”
Sixteen years later, Gutierrez directs his own organization, offering low-cost legal immigration services, a theater arts program, and several community development initiatives.
“Our legal services and immigration projects have blown up too. We see about 450 to 500 families a month now, doing family-based petitions. They come from all over the place: Chicagoland obviously but Indiana, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Texas,” Gutierrez explains. Latinos Progresando is the largest Latino-led immigration legal services program in all of Illinois, with several staff members on hand who have passed stringent accreditation by the national Board of Immigration Appeals and are authorized to work on immigration cases without a law degree. The organization itself is also nationally accredited.
In talking with Gutierrez about the many clients that have passed through his Little Village offices—clients from Utah all the way to New Jersey—you get the sense that reputable, low-cost legal service is hard to come by. “Immigration’s one of those things that’s very difficult to deal with,” he explains. “So what happens is if you go somewhere and you get good service, then you go and you tell your sister, your aunt, your cousin, and then next thing you know we have someone calling from Salt Lake City.”
Gutierrez also notes that his clients are coming from an array of home countries in addition to Mexico. “Most of our clients, not all, but most of our clients come from Mexico. We have a bunch from Latin America; we have clients from Africa, Poland, China.”
Latinos Progresando, with its team of accredited caseworkers, specializes in family-based petitions. “Immigration is a widespread field,” he says. “What we decided at Latinos Pro was that we wanted to get really good at one thing, so we said we’re going to go after family-based immigration…we don’t do asylum, we don’t do deportation. Just family.”
Immigration law is set up in such a way that citizens and legal permanent residents can petition the government to recognize the legal status of their parents, spouses, siblings, and children. But everyone is different. There are waiting lists and protocols, and the law sets things up differently for citizens than for permanent residents.
“There are a bunch of different categories like that,” Gutierrez explains. “And then we have to figure out when you came in, did you submit a petition before 245(i) ended, can you do your paperwork here or can you do it in Ciudad Juárez.” Things get complicated. Paperwork gets lost. People get stuck.
Latinos Progresando has worked for fourteen years to help people through an opaque and hard-to-access legal system. Gutierrez maintains an outlook that is both exasperated and unfailingly buoyant. In describing his motivation to move into this kind of work after managing a Burger King and bouncing around some small nonprofits, Gutierrez goes for the big picture.
“Whenever something goes wrong in America, we have to blame someone, you know. And it’s never the right people. So in the nineties, they were blaming immigrants. Particularly Mexicans. There was this huge scare in the nineties where it was like you were going to get deported if you didn’t become a citizen.”
Despite the challenges of constant fundraising and denied applications, Gutierrez focuses on the small successes. “I felt good when we [Latinos Progresando] hit five years. I didn’t think we were going to make it to five,” he trails off there, remembering the moment when he hired the first full-time staff member. “I’m not thinking about it as an organization anymore, I’m thinking about it like, ‘How do I build an institution?’ ”
On March 1 of this year, a couple dozen organizers and community members gathered at Saint Pius V Church in Pilsen to hear organizers from the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL) and Organized Communities Against Deportations (OCAD)—two locally operating community-based groups linked to national campaigns—recount some of the year’s successes and challenges. The meeting had been organized in part to give friends and neighbors some context for one of the recent high-profile direct actions taken in Illinois.
In November of 2013, twelve activists attempted to block a bus headed from Broadview Detention Center to O’Hare Airport. The group sat with their arms linked inside PVC pipes while fifty more activists and community members from IYJL, OCAD, Undocumented Illinois and other groups rallied around them. Many family members of the people inside the ICE bus, headed to the airport for deportation, chanted and gave speeches.
Maria Paz Perez—a small woman with a commanding presence who has since spoken out at a number of immigrant-rights marches—told Progress Illinois as her husband was deported, “You have to see the human side of this. They’re not criminals. They’re human beings who want to be with their families. Please stop the deportations now.” The twelve protesters succeeded in stalling the bus, but were removed by police dressed in riot gear. Each was charged with disorderly conduct.
It was with this context that Rosi Carrasco explained the reasoning behind civil disobedience. Carrasco addressed the room in Spanish, and Gaby Benitez of the Latino Union of Chicago translated for a small group, “The compañeros who participate in the civil disobedience are demanding the authorities to make a decision, they’re forcing them to make a decision. It’s either ‘Will you arrest us and deport us?’ or ‘Will you make the correct decision and stand on the right side of history, stand with the immigration community?’ ”
The organizers speaking at Saint Pius V were a diverse group of women. Some were undocumented themselves, some had qualified for President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) scheme, some were citizens or legal permanent residents. Yet all had an intimate knowledge of how the threat of deportation plays out in the everyday lives of people, their families, and their communities.
“The members of the community participating in civil disobedience are undocumented. And none of them until this point have been deported. And the reason is because the community is organized,” Carrasco stressed. “While politicians are waiting to make decisions, it is not just that our communities continue to suffer.”
The message of the campaign is simple: stop deportations. Two million, too many. Not one more. “President Obama has the capacity to stop deportations,” said Carrasco. “With the power of a signature, he can give an executive order to stop deportations. Every day ICE deports 1,200 people. By the end of March, the Obama administration will reach two million deportations—no other administration in the history of this country has reached this level.”
The campaign to stop deportations is spearheaded on the national scale by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. But on the South Side, in Chicago and throughout Illinois, the campaign is taken up by many different groups looking to organize their local communities to take action against deportations. This includes the direct action at the Broadview Detention Center in November and another civil disobedience action in April, when a group of eleven protesters sat blocking traffic in the street outside of the ICE Broadview facility.
But the campaign to stop deportations also includes individual cases. Undocumented Illinois, NDLON, OCAD and others will circulate online petitions urging ICE and the federal government to grant stays of deportation to community members caught up in proceedings. These are the cases that Luis Gutierrez and Latinos Progresando could not help with, cases that are flagged as “high priority” for ICE.
The way immigration law works, a case can become high priority for a number of reasons outside of just a “criminal record.” Those who have multiple “unauthorized entries” into the country are flagged. Those who have overstayed student or tourist visas, those who have routine traffic stops even, can be put on the fast track for deportation, no questions asked. Sometimes the online petitions are successful. Sometimes they are not. Either way, they serve to illustrate the arbitrary severity of “high priority” flags within the legal system.
When asked about successes within the movement, IYJL organizer Marcela Hernandez recounts the story of a single case she worked on. “I was working on a campaign of this woman called Lourdes, and she’s a mother of four children and she was put into deportation proceedings in the suburbs,” Hernandez explains. “We were actually able to win her case and she was able to stay with her children…And she’s actually speaking at our Coming Out of the Shadows rally about her story. She was someone who at first was very shy and now she’s so comfortable sharing her story, to fight for herself and involve her community in that fight.”
The Coming Out of the Shadows rally is an annual event, started in Chicago in 2010, during which undocumented youth publically gather on campuses all over the country and at Chicago’s Federal Plaza to declare that they are “undocumented and unafraid.” This year’s rally was a miserable, sleeting Saturday in March, but the members of OCAD and IYJL turned out strong.
Marcela Hernandez addressed the crowd gathered at the Federal Plaza downtown. “And that is why we get together here every year, rain, snow, whatever the weather, we are all here because we believe in the stories and in the power of the stories to create political change,” she said. IYJL members led a series of simple, bilingual chants: not one more. Ni uno más. Undocumented, unafraid. Unapologetic. Julio Zanchez, an exuberant young man with a megaphone, urged the crowd to jump up and down, joking: “Whoever is not jumping is ICE. El que no brinque es migra.”
The rally’s speakers were an intergenerational group. Young people spoke of their parents’ struggles living through the reality of undocumented status, as well as their own realities, like being denied federal financial aid for college. Maria Paz Perez spoke out about her husband’s deportation. Lourdes, the woman whose case Hernandez had worked on, spoke about her chilling experience in detention and about her children, whom she would be forced to leave behind if she were deported: “That day marked my life, when my nightmare began; I was on my way to work and never returned. And today, thanks to God, and the mobilization of the people I got out of that hell. My story does not end here; I am still in deportation proceedings but I am no longer afraid.”
Tanya Cabrera is in a unique position to advocate for undocumented students’ rights and opportunities, working both with an academic institution and a community-based organization. Through her work at Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and the Illinois Dream Fund, Tanya Cabrera has learned ways to stretch the resources normally available to undocumented students facing the dilemma of paying for college without access to federal financial aid, government loans and grants, or work-study programs.
Cabrera grew up in the Little Village area and attended multiple Illinois colleges. She is a former college and career advisor at Benito Juárez Community Academy and now works in higher education. In her role as Dream Fund commissioner, she comes across as the perfect combination of a sympathetic guidance counselor and a drill sergeant.
At IIT, Cabrera primarily works in outreach to the undocumented student population. She has travelled throughout Illinois, to California, Florida, Alabama, New York, and elsewhere, to get a sense of different community demographics and student needs.
Cabrera’s work as chair of the Illinois Dream Fund requires her to be a little more crafty. The Illinois Dream Fund is a not-for-profit organization that was set up in 2011 as part of the Illinois Dream Act, a state law that increases immigrant access to college. Though the fund is state-created, the onus of fundraising falls on the Dream Fund Commission, the cohort of volunteer stakeholders to which Cabrera was appointed in 2011.
Illinois is one of just twenty states with these kinds of “Dream Act” laws on the books, allowing for undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates at public colleges and universities. The Dream Act, in many forms and at both the national and state levels, has been on the radar since the early 2000s. The act itself has a long history within the immigrant-justice movement, but Cabrera points out that the original problems that prompted action around the Dream Act, in Illinois and throughout the country, are far from resolved.
Luis Gutierrez remembers encountering the same problems of college access back in 2001 that Cabrera, IYJL, and so many others are now starting to make gains on, over a decade later. Gutierrez confides, “You just have to give people bad news all the time. And that sucks. But what’s worse is when people are like, ‘Well, I’m fine but I have my kid and they’re at this high school, what can we do for them?’ But then we’re getting them into colleges, and there’s no financial aid.”
That seeming last step of financial aid is the problem that Tanya Cabrera works to redress. Cabrera is the muscle behind the fundraising efforts, but she also must work diligently to keep up a strong rapport with the students applying to and benefitting from the Dream Fund. In the program’s first year, there were 1,437 applications; that number grew to 2,337 applications this past academic year.
The relationships that Cabrera has established with “the kids,” as she calls them, are very private and very honest. She has no qualms telling the students what they are eligible for and what they are not, and explaining unfortunate realities when she must.
“I’m not trying to come off as evil, but I am letting them know, ‘You have to think long term,’ and that it’s okay to start off at a community college.”
As Cabrera explained it, a big problem for undocumented college students is the fact that they don’t have proper access to all of the information that they need concerning their immigration and financial situations. Oftentimes these students are incorrectly categorized as international students, or are told by colleges that they will qualify for subsidized loans or other government grants. Cabrera struggles in telling them that they won’t be able to receive the money in the end because they don’t have an international student visa or legal permanent residency in the states.
Cabrera’s goal is to “make sure that they know the game ahead of time. With papers or without papers.” As she tries to explain to her students, “You guys have access to school. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”
But the process of actually putting together the money is a dizzying one, an endless game of paperwork which many undocumented students have real difficulty navigating. Are they DACA eligible? Even so, a work permit and Social Security number won’t translate into an application for federal financial aid. Does the state have an in-state tuition law on the books? What can a two-year or community college offer? Are they looking into private, high-interest loans? How are they planning to pay off that debt? As Gaby Benitez and many other young organizers have put it, for an undocumented student caught between college acceptances and financial aid denial, it all comes down to a lack of that “nine-digit number.”
But yet another big problem facing Cabrera and the Dream Fund is financial constraint. Cabrera explained how, when the Dream Fund was first started by the state, the team was expecting a lot more support than they have ended up receiving. It is a constant game of cat-and-mouse between Cabrera and potential donors, who range from Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other politicians to private businesses.
When asked how she reaches out to donors to put pressure on them to donate, Cabrera said bluntly, “I stalk them,” and whenever donors choose not to donate, donate less than what Cabrera thinks they can, or even rescind an already promised donation, she is not shy at all to publically disclose those names. She knows that she “is burning bridges,” but at the end of the day her goal is to get the money for her students, and she accomplishes it any way that she can.
The ultimate obstacle that Cabrera identifies, though, is the fact that federal immigration reform has yet to be passed. And, in her mind, it certainly won’t be passed this year. Donors are always saying that “legislation is going to pass,” so they don’t donate. And legislators and politicians are always saying, “something will pass.” Cabrera’s response: “If you’re saying ‘something’ and not what is on the table, then what does that mean?”
For Cabrera, that “something” must be more than “DACA for all,” which provides no path to citizenship, and more than a work visa for which immigrants have to re-apply and pay for every year, again with no path to citizenship. “Why not pass immigration reform? Why not make it universal not only for students, but for parents?” she asks. “It’s just something that needs to happen…and I think that it’s up to the people to raise arms, and raise voices. We need action.” Action is indeed needed, it is all a question of how, when, and from whom it will come about. Cabrera has certainly volunteered herself to be a fighter. “Sometimes,” she says, “you just need a little crazy.”
Written and reported with help from Cristina Ochoa.