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Don’t Call Me Illegal: An Interview With Youth Immigrant Activist Tania Unzueta

Tania A. Unzueta, organizer with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. (Photo: Free Press)

Last week the Senate began a fierce debate over comprehensive immigration reform, and the mainstream media is flashing plenty of headlines bearing the words “illegal immigrant.” One place you won’t see the I-word, however, is in coverage by the Associated Press, which recently bowed to activist pressure and dropped the term “illegal immigrant” from its style guide, which serves as an industry standard for many journalists.

Still, the coverage of the reform package is predictable: moderate Republicans and Democrats are sparring with conservatives who refuse to give undocumented immigrants a pathway to citizenship without assurance that an already militarized southern border is “secured.” The voices of well-paid politicians will reverberate through the media, but what about the voices of the roughly 11 million American residents who would be directly impacted by immigration reform?

In a country where immigration authorities deport 400,000 people every year and use the otherworldly word “alien” to refer to undocumented people, speaking out can be challenging, if not outright risky, but that’s exactly what Chicago-based organizer Tania Unzueta has done for four years. Unzueta, currently an organizer with the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and co-founder of the Immigrant Youth Justice League, is one of many undocumented youth who have stepped into the public light to change the way the media covers the immigration debate. Truthout sat down with Unzueta in April at the National Conference on Media Reform to discuss the I-word, immigration reform, living in America as an undocumented youth and what it means to call someone “illegal.”

Truthout: The Associated Press has phased out the I-word and diligent activism made that possible, but I think you said something very poignant yesterday, about how there’s a change here in the language in the media, but there are still a lot of integral problems facing the immigrant community.

Tania Unzueta: I definitively think that the AP dropping the I-word is a huge success. I can’t remember how many times I’ve cringed whenever I’ve seen my name next to the words “illegal immigrant.” And I’ve had so many discussion with journalists who say, Well, this is what the AP says, so this is what we’re going to go with, and there is no changing it from there. So this is definitively a win and it’s exciting in whatever way it is, but yeah, I mean, I feel like I also see what enforcement does to our community every day, right? So there is 400,000 deportations every year, 409,000 in the last year, which is the highest in the history of the United States. President Obama is about to hit 2 million deportations, which is the highest number that any president has had. We have programs in, I think, over 90 percent of the counties of the United States for Secure Communities, which is what the program is called, but it’s a collaboration between immigration and the police, and so we have people all over the place who are being pulled over for absolutely random things sometimes. Sometimes it’s racial profiling, and then they are turned over to immigration authorities.

Truthout: So there’s profiling, harassment and sometimes it’s tough to find work for folks, and these issues are all going to continue.

Tania Unzueta: Definitely. I feel like in the last week I’ve worked on at least three cases of people who have gotten deported. I’m so frustrated about it. My parents still can’t travel. My mom has seen her dad once in the last 19 years because it’s been hard for him to travel here and hard for her to travel there. So, great, you’re not calling me an illegal immigrant, but we’re still in the same situation.

Truthout: Right. Let’s talk about Obama for a second. His executive order for DREAMers – it was a victory, but it was also seen as something to rally votes for the upcoming election, and the reform package he’s floating is obviously not going far enough to protect families. So if you could sit down with Obama or any of these members of Congress, what would you tell them?

Tania Unzueta: For me, deferred action has not been enough. So like, a work permit, great. I’m not getting deported, great (laughs). I think the situation with my parents is what’s constantly on my mind, and I think I would tell them to think of us as people, you know, that whatever rights they want their children to have, those are the same rights our parents want us to have. And the same rights that they want their parents to have are the same rights that we want our parents to have. And in reality, I feel the conversations around immigration reform are more about politics than about people. It feels like they are trying to appease those who talk about border enforcement, the people who don’t want more immigrants of color in the United States. Republicans have to stick to their anti-immigrant perspective for election purposes because that’s how their constituency thinks. So it’s all a political game, and what we’re trying to do is tell them that it’s not just about politics; this is about our lives.

Truthout: And that is something you have been able to bring to the forefront with the direct actions you have done and with coming out as undocumented, which was risky, but it did help start to shift the perception of what was actually happing on the ground and in peoples lives. Can you talk a bit about the organizing behind that?

Tania Unzueta: I think, for me, I first talked about my story when I was 17 and then September 11 happened, and everything went backwards from talking about inclusion of undocumented immigrants to border security, national security, terrorism and all these things. I feel like, after that I just wanted to be … to fit in, I think, to quote-unquote be “normal,” or whatever that word meant to me at that time. And then it wasn’t, until I met a friend of mine who was in deportation proceedings and had really no legal options and no support from the community, but that’s when we started talking about, like, how do we make others see that what’s happening around deportations specifically could be happening to us too, that were not safe just because you don’t see us here in detention or wearing an ankle bracelet or something like that. So this friend of mine, he got a DUI when he was driving, and that’s how he was put into deportation proceedings, and because of the DUI, people were like, “You are a bad example of an immigrant and we’re not going to help you, you should be getting deported.” And this was everyone from legislators to community advocates and people who call themselves immigrant rights advocates. And so you know, for me, it wasn’t just the DUI, it was him as a person, and me and other friends started thinking: What if we were to tell our friends that could be me? He is the same as me and I could be getting deported tomorrow. Are you just going to stand by in the same way?

I feel like it was not on purpose that we also started talking about it amongst ourselves and realized that that was also really empowering. So to be sitting in a room, for example, when everyone had just gone around the table and talked about being undocumented and how our stories related or didn’t relate, and just like, how we survived every day. So it become this really powerful tool to, on one hand, to talk to people about what our stories were, and push for a change in immigration policy, and, on the other hand, come together and think as undocumented people about how we wanted policies to change, and how we wanted to empower our own undocumented community.

Truthout: Our border policies are policies of attrition that are exacerbating a humanitarian crisis that hurts and kills people. How does the language that we hear in the media help keep this fact hidden from view?

Tania Unzueta: That’s a good point. I really feel that the media is way too simplistic about … the people who cover immigration often don’t know a lot of the laws and policies and subtleties and implications and how it’s applied and other things. So I feel like, if you don’t look beyond the surface, it’s okay to say, “We’re deporting criminal aliens,” right? Because the way our society is, who wants quote-unquote “criminals” in their community? So I feel like, that’s one way of not seeing who those people who are being labeled “criminal” really are, what their stories are, what’s happening. I also think there is a lot of isolation of what’s happening around the border. In 2010, I was in Arizona and people were telling us how, because of the attrition policies, families were leaving Arizona, and, as they were leaving, immigration would set up checkpoints to detain them as they were leaving the country, just so they could put more people in detention for three months, for example, and then deport them and send them back. But again, it’s about border security and national security and “We’re doing our job,” and it’s definitively putting people into categories, right? There’s the lawbreakers and those who follow the law. And I think the lawbreakers can be both undocumented immigrants and people doing humanitarian aid, for example. There’s been reports of the border patrol, for example, taking down water centers where humanitarian workers leave water for migrant workers who are crossing, and the way they see it, [humanitarian aid workers] are aiding illegal crossing around the country.

The language around illegality and criminality are two things. Our immediate response has been to say, one, we’re not illegal, and two, we’re not criminals. But I feel like we have to go into a deeper conversation and ask ourselves, does someone who is a legitimate criminal, whatever that means, deserve to get deported? Even in the migrant rights community. Our response has been. as a national immigrant rights movement, to say, “We’re not criminals,” instead of to question even the categories of criminality, and if that’s the best way to keep our communities safe.

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