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Undocumented Student, Arrested in Chicago, Speaks with Campus Progress

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Members of the group Immigrant Youth Justice League protest an ICE task force hearing in Chicago on Wednesday evening. Six protesters were arrested, including Carla Navoa (sitting at right in green shirt), an undocumented student at the University of Illinois — Chicago.

CREDIT: Sarah Jane Rhee

Members of an Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) task force commissioned to review possible changes to the Obama administration’s immigration enforcement program Secure Communities have been touring the country lately to defend the controversial program from the harsh criticism of immigrants’ rights groups. The visits have drawn large protests and walkouts, most notably earlier this week in Los Angeles and on Wednesday night in Chicago.

Chicago is home to the Immigrant Youth Justice League, a group of young people that pioneered the strategy of publicly outing themselves as undocumented immigrants, coining the phrase “undocumented and unafraid.” The group led the opposition to the ICE task force on Wednesday, leading a large group to walk out of the public hearing. Six members of IYJL were subsequently arrested as they sat in the middle of a highway entrance ramp in an act of civil disobedience.

Carla Navoa, 21, was one of those six. Born in the Philippines, she came to the U.S. with family at age 5 on a tourist visa. Her family did not originally intend to remain in the U.S., but later decided they would petition for citizenship through Navoa’s grandfather, a green card holder. He died the same year he was eligible for citizenship. Navoa’s family filed a petition for citizenship six years ago, but the current backlog makes it unlikely their petition will be processed any time soon.

Campus Progress spoke with Navoa, a student at University of Illinois-Chicago, just a few hours after she and the other six IYJL members were released from jail—and before she’d gotten a chance to sleep.

How did you come to decide you would get arrested yesterday?

I've thought a lot about civil disobedience for as long as I've been a member of the Immigrant Youth Justice League, which is a little over a year. I knew I needed to do something when I found out the Department of Homeland Security made the decision to make S-Comm [Secure Communities]mandatory even in areas that don't want to be a part of the program. Here I thought we were making progress in Illinois with Gov. [Pat] Quinn opting out. But [Secretary of Homeland Security Janet] Napolitano saying that we have no choice… I was and am enraged.

I spent so long working to overcome my personal fears of coming out and facing the threat of deportation for my family and me. Mandating S-Comm regenerated that fear. I decided to do the action yesterday to get other youth and immigrant families to face their fears and stand up to the tyranny of DHS and ICE. I've had enough of hearing stories about friends and community members losing family who have committed no serious crime. I'm not going to be bullied or accept anyone being terrorized by ICE. I guess I reached my boiling point

Describe what happened to you at the action yesterday, both while you were in the street and then what happened in jail.

Inside the DHS Taskforce hearing, we were all antsy. Everyone in the room wanted to tell the taskforce just how angry we are about the S-Comm mandate. Even though IYJL prepared for various possible scenarios, a lot of the timing and action was done intuitively. I was anxious and ready to take to the streets. I was incredibly frustrated at the police, because some community members were locked out from the hearing, but it worked out in the end, because when we walked out of the hearing, the majority of the crowd followed and we were united with those outside to create a tidal wave to block traffic.

Our energy was very high, and it was heightened by the big crowd supporting us. I stopped thinking once I staked out my spot in the intersection. I was shouting at the top of my lungs—I wanted the cars in adjacent streets and the taskforce to hear.But more so, I wanted to drown out any doubt in myself.

The [Chicago Police Department] didn't act right away, so we escalated on the spot by blocking the expressway exit.

What happened in jail?

We were greeted by police, who welcomed us to the "gray bar hotel." The ones processing us in the beginning were actually pretty nice—one even applauded us after seeing the action on TV. Another wanted an IYJL shirt. For about four hours we waited to take mug shots. We were able to stay together and talk to one another.

But once it got later at night, the officer who processed the girls was really rough. It was awful because they took away our glasses, so I couldn't see much and was really dizzy. They took us to individual holding cells, which were freezing, so sleeping or even being able to sit still was impossible.

While we were in the station, we heard people were outside waiting for us to come out.

I felt so much better knowing my community was standing with me through and through.

What did your family think of the action?

I didn't tell them I was going to do the [civil disobedience] because I knew they would try to stop me. But I did it for them. In a way, I feel like I did it to protect them. Safety lies not in remaining silent. All too often, ICE deports immigrants by cover of night, or those most likely to comply. But this was all about non-compliance and standing up to keep families from being ripped apart.

How worried are you about being deported now that you've been arrested?

I'm definitely worried about the police having my fingerprints. ICE can intervene at anytime. I'm more worried, but at the same time, I know my community will do whatever it takes to keep me and others like me here.

Do you think you'll be safer because of your visible activism?

I some ways yes, but that's assuming ICE will try to avoid bad publicity. But since they don't seem to care about the victims of their broken programs, I have no idea what they will decide.

Some people say that ICE is trying to hear from the public about their policies, and walkouts and civil disobediences are shutting down that attempt at communication. What's your reaction to that?

I think ICE knows our stories. They've heard scores of testimonies of families torn apart, children raised without parents, wives who've lost their husbands. The only recommendation they should give is to either seriously change the program to discount minor violations or terminate S-Comm altogether. It's done more harm than good.

What is your reaction to the news today that the Obama administration is going to review every pending deportation case and prioritize “high-risk” detainees, like people who have committed serious crimes?

I'm not gonna hold my breath.

Why not?

Obama has done nothing he promised to do for the immigrant community. This is another one of those Band-Aid quick fixes to get the community off his back. Until I see evidence to show only serious criminals are being deported after these reviews are implemented, I'm not getting my hopes up.

Do you think of it as a victory at all? One could view this as the president's response to the pressure of immigrants and immigrants’ rights groups.

I guess it's a small victory, but at the same time, I feel like folks lose sight of the urgency of the issue if we consider something like this a victory. We want to keep the pressure on until programs like S-Comm are no longer implemented.

As an undocumented person, how did you feel about President Obama's election in 2008? Have your feelings changed since then?

In 2008, I was pretty apolitical. But in the past couple of years, I've really transformed my views on a lot of things, including Obama. It makes no sense that the first black president is deporting masses of immigrants—fellow people of color.

Many think that Obama has to push policies like S-Comm to appease centrist voters or immigration hawks. How do you feel about that argument?

If he's willing to throw millions of hardworking people under the bus just to appease a bunch of right-wing racists, then of course the immigrant community is going to be angry.

Micah Uetricht is a staff writer with Campus Progress. You can follow him on Twitter @micahuetricht.

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