Rigo Padilla, Reyna Wences & Tania Unzueta: Chicago, IL

Leaders of the Immigrant Youth Justice League and organizers of the “National Coming Out of the Shadows Days”

Rigo Padilla was a promising student at the University of Illinois at Chicago when he was placed into deportation proceedings. Believing in the legal system, Rigo attempted to fight his deportation through the courts, but soon was told that he had run our of legal options and he would be deported. Tania Unzueta and Reyna Wences worked with Rigo at a local community program, and organized a grassroots campaign that eventually won the support of five Congressmen, a Senator, the Chicago City Council, community organizations, and thousands of Chicagoans. Padilla’s deportation was deferred days before he was scheduled to travel back to Mexico.

While organizing for this campaign Padilla, Wences and Unzueta saw that many of the supporters of this campaign were undocumented youth like themselves, who had lived in the U.S. for most of their lives. It was then that they recognized the need for an organization led by undocumented youth, and formed the Immigrant Youth Justice League (IYJL). Wences and Unzueta are both part of the queer community, and together with Padilla, organized the first “National Coming Out of the Shadows Day” for undocumented youth, declaring to be “undocumented and unafraid.” The inspiration for this rally came both from the mass immigrant rights marches in past years, and the Gay liberation movement, as well as Unzueta and Wences’ experience coming out as queer.

The March 2010 rally captured the imagination of DREAM Act students across the nation. Soon undocumented young people were “coming out” across the nation. IYJL took an active role in leading this movement, strategizing and supporting acts of civil disobedience by undocumented youth.

Unzueta participated in the first sit-in at Sen. John McCain’s Arizona office, and later she and Wences were both arrested in the Senate Office building in DC. Both women represented themselves in D.C court.

Wences and Unzueta are examples of those who may seem to be most vulnerable and at risk because of their sexual orientation and immigration status. LGBTQ undocumented immigrants face double “closets.” But they, like Padilla, overcame their fear of deportation and discrimination and instead became a powerful source of meaningful action.

All three have chosen to organize in spite of very real risks. When his case became public Padilla was fired from his job in a restaurant. Wences and Unzueta risked deportation themselves by supporting Padilla and coming out as undocumented. Unzueta quit her job to participate in the Arizona sit-ins and organize immigrant youth. During the campaign the students confronted a not-too-pleased Sen. Dick Durbin, challenging him to support Padilla.

Padilla, Wences and Unzueta were thrust into leadership roles by circumstances they could not control, but didn’t shy away from the opportunity their adverse conditions presented . They stepped into this leadership role and showed imagination, courage, and tenacity in inspiring others to join them in coming out “undocumented and unafraid.”

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The Freedom From Fear Awards are produced by Public Interest Projects, (PIP).  PIP is a non-profit, non-partisan organization that brings together and strengthens the work of philanthropic institutions, donors, nonprofit groups and other public interest organizations sharing a vision of a society that ensures justice, dignity and opportunity for all people.   Statements and activities of Freedom from Fear Award winners do not necessarily reflect the views of PIP.

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