Immigration | Interviews | La Vida de La Villita | Little Village | Police

Tania Unzueta

An organizer challenges the way we think about—and police—immigration today

Dan Rowell

Tania Unzueta is a fierce advocate for the rights of undocumented immigrants around the country. She helped found the three organizations that defend the rights of immigrants, including Organized Communities Against Deportation and its predecessor the Immigrant Youth Justice League, and Mijente, a national Latinx organization. She was first arrested for staging a sit-in in Senator John McCain’s office in 2010 in support of the Dream Act. These days, she continues to work with OCAD and serves as the policy director for Mijente, a political hub that calls itself pro-Latinx, pro-Black, pro-woman, pro-queer and pro-poor.

Tania came to the United States from Mexico when she was 10 years old and settled in Little Village. She continues to live in Little Village today. 90 Days, 90 Voices spoke to Tania over the phone while she was in Texas fighting for the rights of immigrants detained along the border.

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Since Trump has been elected, undocumented immigrants have faced a series of pretty sharp attacks in a way that we hadn’t seen before. There’s a lack of accountability to anyone in immigration enforcement in a way that didn’t exist under the Obama administration. There’s a lot of fear with people not knowing whether they’re going to see their loved one soon. A lot of folks who thought they were safe are fearing deportation again.

In Little Village and places like Back of the Yards, there’s times when people are scared. They don’t go to school that day. There’s less people on the street, particularly after immigration raids happen, which have been hitting both of these communities.

But it’s not just all fear. Part of the work we do is to figure out how to organize the community members so that we can fight for policies that actually protect people at the local, state, and national level.

Right now we’re calling for the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the organization founded in 2003. We don’t want to go back to the the Obama-era immigration enforcement practices, we want to make sure that whatever we get next provides some level of liberation for our people. My long-term vision is a world where people can be happy, can live without fear, and I can organize without fear. And to me that means the abolition of ICE and changing the funding of local police enforcement.

I don’t think Chicago is a sanctuary city right now. Sanctuary is supposed to be a place that you’ve protected. How ever you look at it, Chicago is only a sanctuary because the mayor says it is so. Even the sanctuary city ordinance, the “Welcoming City Ordinance,” has big exceptions that to me are pretty bad, that leave people unprotected. The welcoming city ordinance says that police won’t communicate with ICE unless a person is in the gang database or the person has been charged with a felony, regardless of whether they’ve been convicted or not. Those are categories that are completely dependent on the Chicago police and the police have a bad history of working with communities of color.

The sanctuary city policy only defends people that the police haven’t criminalized. When we have a police force that is corrupt, violent, and has shown that it discriminates against people of color, that is incredibly harmful for communities in Chicago.

The other thing is that everyone deserves sanctuary. Not just immigrants. And immigrants need protection from police, not just ICE. It is pretty clear to me that when we talk about communities of color in Chicago, including immigrant communities, the police and immigration agents are the biggest threat to our community safety.

I think everyone is a target right now for immigration. We literally had people put into deportation proceedings after they talked to newspapers and their story gets published. I feel like I am a target as an activist. But I think everyone who’s undocumented is a target right now.

I think there’s a lot of focus by folks who are not immigrants on children and young people. And I think what they don’t understand is that we actually don’t just want them to care about us. We won’t survive without our parents. The thing that has happened over and over is that people have thrown our parents under the bus in order to be able to get stuff for us, like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

I think it’s happening now with the children at the border. Their parents are being prosecuted by the Department of Justice and being put into a private prison. The only thing people care about is the children. And it’s like, yeah, who do you think the children are supposed to be with? They’re supposed to be with their parents, who are being criminally prosecuted right now!

I get it. I get chills about babies in jail. But I think you can’t isolate one part of our families without thinking about the other.

The other thing people don’t understand is our anger toward immigration enforcement. They think that it can just be made better or go back to the way it was under Obama. What we’re telling people is that it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter whether they’re being nice or being assholes when they separate our families. We don’t want them to separate our families period.

What we’re trying to get them to understand is that the literal existence of immigration and customs enforcement is to detain people. It’s used as a political arm of the government. It’s the president’s own police force. Whether the president is Democrat or Republican, he’s going to continue to use ICE to separate families.

I need people to stop saying, “Keep families together.” If they want to help us, I need them to start saying, “Abolish ICE.” And get rid of the ways that police help out law enforcement.

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