DREAM Act/Coming Out of the Shadows Day rally today; will Rahm listen?

March 10, 2011

The most startling moments at last year’s rallies for the DREAM Act and immigration reform would often be when immigrant youth would step forward, identify themselves and declare themselves undocumented.

The young people that took that step were a surprising bunch: Latinos, yes, but also Asians and Middle Easterners and others that were harder to pinpoint ethnically. Almost to the person, they spoke perfect English, and they looked beautifully ordinary: hip and nerdy, awkward and impetuous, convinced of the righteousness of their cause.

The confession they made itself was terrifying, I suspect, even for those of us looking on who were secure in our status. The move was bold but also filled with a passionate faith: To stand up and say “I am undocumented” meant that the fight for the DREAM Act could have only one outcome; no other possibility could be considered.

And yet, here we are, a year later, the DREAM Act voted down and those kids … still going strong.

“Last year undocumented youth began to think of undocumented as an intrinsic part of our identity, of who we are, and of how we experience our lives,” says Tania Unzueta, one of the young folks who came out last year.  “We sat in a room and said to each other that we were undocumented, and told our stories. We realized that this was powerful, and we wanted to share it with the rest of the country, so we declared March 10th National Coming Out day, and called ourselves ‘undocumented and unafraid.’ Throughout the year we tried to live by that slogan.”

Earlier this year, Unzueta went to Arizona with others in her situation to participate in a civil disobedience action and later got arrested in Washington DC while pushing for the DREAM Act.

“This year, once again, we are asking undocumented youth to come out and declare that they are undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic about our pursuit for equal rights,” says Unzueta. “We are also asking those who are not undocumented to speak out on behalf of immigrant rights when there are no undocumented youth present, and support us when we are there.”

Instead of retreating, instead of pretending they hadn’t unmasked themselves, or trying to mask themselves anew, the unveiling has empowered them. Today, these gutsy young people – many now organized into the Immigrant Youth Justice League  (you gotta love the superhero shout out) -- are going to do it all again at 3 p.m.  at Daley Plaza in what they're calling a National Coming Out of the Shadows Day rally.

Their goal? To connect with one another and their supporters. To tell the truth and give each other strength in that truth. keep the DREAM Act alive. To have a life of dignity.

*     *     *

If Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel was sincere in his desire to help undocumented young people who deserve a better lot, he might be wise to attend the rally today – and listen.

We know little about Emanuel’s views on immigration except his “third rail” comment. During the mayoral campaign, he proposed a local version of the DREAM Act (as did Miguel del Valle) that made headlines for about a day, then vanished. Essentially a college loan/scholarship program, Emanuel’s proposal showed how little he actually understood of the plight of undocumented young people, and even less about what they need.

I asked Unzueta about Emanuel’s proposal. Chicago is already a sanctuary city, thanks to Mayor Harold Washington back in 1983 but re-affirmed by the City Council in 2007. What else can be done locally?

“The reality is that a local dream act doesn't do much for us,” she said. “We need a path to legalization, which only a federal law can change. But the things that are within state (and local) jurisdiction are treatment of undocumented immigrants by local police, driving certificates, scholarship money for schools, training sponsored by the city or state for school counselors on how undocumented youth can apply to (college)school, rights, etc.”

Those are just a few ideas. And Rahm has been asking for ideas.

Here’s hoping he means it.

Tania Unzueta speaking before the media