Chicago Activists Speak – “No Human Being is Illegal: Immigration in Chicago”

Last week, Reclaim Chicago and Chicago Progress hosted a panel discussion on the theme, “No Human Being is Illegal: Immigration in Chicago,” featuring local activists with both personal and public connections to issues of immigration justice. The event was part of the monthly North Side Drinks and Discourse series, which provides an informal space where people interested in progressive politics can get together and share ideas and experiences related to important issues of the day.

Panel - No Human is IllegalThe panel members included (photo, l to r) Andre Vasquez, Chair of Reclaim Chicago’s North Chapter and Executive Director of Chicago Progress; Marta Popadiak, Field Director of Reclaim Chicago and Director of United Neighbors of 35th Ward; Gabe Gonzalez, co-chair of Network 49 and founder of Protect RP, an organization designed to protect Rogers Park residents from ICE raids; David Martinez, community activist; and Egle Malinauskaite, community organizer with the People’s Lobby. Panel moderator was Veronica I. Arreola, a professional feminist, mom, and writer, who has worked with the Chicago Abortion Fund, Planned Parenthood, and currently serves on the board of Bitch Media. Her family is from Mexico.

Panel members reflected on their personal experiences growing up as immigrants and working with immigrant communities. They talked about the hurdles facing undocumented immigrants, and what can be done to alleviate the many stereotypes that often work against them in shaping immigration policy. Panelists agreed solutions can be found in community organizing, pointing to the nearly 100 people who turned out as a sign of the potential for progressive change.

Interest in these issues has been heightened by the upheaval and uncertainty facing immigrants and minorities following the election of Donald Trump. Through a combination of executive orders, directives to enforcement agencies, and public threats, the Trump administration has intensified fear and insecurity among immigrant communities and cities where they are concentrated. Furthermore, Trump’s racist and xenophobic rhetoric has emboldened white nationalists to mobilize in more visible and violent ways, most notably in Charlottesville, where they terrorized residents and killed a counter-protestor this month.

In addition to this national backdrop, the panelists expressed their own reasons for making immigration justice a priority in their life. Some of them experienced firsthand the hardships many immigrant families face.  All of them have seen their friends and neighbors harmed by punitive immigration policies.  A common refrain of the night was that the vast majority of Americans are immigrants or descendants of immigrants, and the nation’s immigration policy should reflect this shared history.

Gonzalez talked about how he began his work on immigration reform in 2001, and stated, “It was a transformative experience for me seeing the day to day struggle of my neighbors. I view immigration as an issue of human dignity and rights. Although growing up I didn’t experience the same struggles, I have seen how the current policy has hurt undocumented families throughout the city.” To help his fellow neighbors in Rogers Park, he started the organization, Project RP, which trains volunteers in direct action techniques to defend people in their neighborhood from deportation.  Journalist Bill Moyers recently interviewed Gonzalez on Project RP which can be viewed here

Crowd - No Human Is IllegalFor Popodiak, the fight for immigrant rights came from her personal experience, “My parents came to America from Poland in the 1970’s and were provided legal status due to Reagan’s immigration reform bill. But after my father died, my family became homeless and my mother missed her opportunity to get legal status. For 30 years she paid taxes into the system, yet didn’t reap the benefits associated with that.”

Vasquez, who grew up in Chicago and is the son of Guatemalan immigrants, saw how hard his parents worked to attain citizenship, and experienced much of the prejudice that immigrants experience. He added, “What happened this past weekend in Charlottesville was horrible. Unfortunately, it’s not shocking to know this kind of racism and hatred exists, yet I do feel the majority of us are on the side fighting for what is right.”

Malinauskaite, a Lithuanian immigrant, talked about moving to the Bridgeport neighborhood because “I am comfortable when I’m in an ethnically diverse neighborhood. To me, that is more representative of America.” Malinauskaite has been a strong advocate for the Student Access Bill, which would provide legal authority to 4-year public universities in Illinois to provide financial aid to undocumented students. Undocumented students are currently ineligible to receive federal or state-based financial aid.

Martinez, who spent his early years in El Salvador and witnessed the civil war there, said his family came to America for safety.  Growing up in his Los Angeles neighborhood, he felt he had the opportunities to succeed back then that the immigrants do not have now. “I received a good public education and later went to Berkeley and became a software developer,” said Martinez. Regarding the plight of undocumented immigrants today, he added, “I feel so many things are out of their control. Policy should be based on what they can contribute to our society, and should not be subject to political games.”

When asked why immigration needs to be in the forefront of political discussion, the panelists all agreed on the importance of holding politicians accountable. Gonzalez said, “Take the opportunity to see whether politicians are telling the truth or scapegoating the issue. We must continue to challenge them.”  Vasquez added, “Find out the specificities of what policies they are committed to. Politicians often talk in broad strokes, so find out the specifics from them.” Popodiak agreed, “We are often used as pawns for votes. We need to demand the truth from our politicians.”

In response to the question, what stereotypes regarding immigrants hurt the most, Vasquez explained, “The narrative that immigrants are taking our jobs really hurts. Across party lines we are all hurting and experiencing the loss of jobs. Unfortunately people start placing fault and pointing fingers at each other for causing these problems. This creates many of the divisions in society we are seeing today. When in reality, everyone just wants to feed their family. “

Malinauskaite commented on the sexism and domestic violence that can be related to immigration, “Many people have to get married to avoid deportation. Also, domestic violence often occurs when one individual feels they have power over another. After an assault takes place, many people are afraid to go to the police to accuse a family member if the end result is that person being deported.”

Gonzalez answered, “Yes, the narrative they’re taking our jobs, taking advantage of welfare, and that they’re criminals is disturbing. It’s an old political play; they use these narratives to scare people. The truth is capitalism cannot survive without keeping many of us oppressed and that’s a big reason why the government threatens immigrants.”

Popodiak added, “I was brought up as many others were that we have to work harder, and that we have to overachieve in order to succeed as an immigrant. The idea you have to pick yourself up by the bootstraps is idiotic. My dad worked himself to death, working three jobs at a time.”

The panelists addressed the next question: How do we flip these type of stereotypical arguments in our favor to focus on what immigrants add to America?  Vasquez answered, “We have to realize we all share a common enemy. We have to work together to fight the forces working against us.” Gonzalez agreed, “We need to work together because we share a common goal; it’s a question of humanity.” Popodiak added, “It’s a matter of communicating with one another. When we hear one of these stereotypes, it’s important that we point out the inaccuracies and inform them of the truth. It’s important to build pipelines to other groups and politicians that support our cause. There is hope in our coming together and making progress. “

In conclusion, when asked, what does it mean to be an American, Martinez answered, “This is not a static question, being an American keeps being redefined. There is a difference between blind allegiance and solidarity. Your pride and success should be determined on your own terms, not others.” Malinauskaite added, “Being surrounded by many ethnicities and cultures is what is truly American.” Vasquez said, “I’m proud of the potential America has, but we have some work to do to get there. I’m hopeful just seeing how many people are here tonight.”

Immigration Panel - Citlalli Bueno & Aury Bevashi
Citlalli Bueno and Aury Bwashi

Many attendees of the event shared similar reasons for being there. After an emotionally charged week of witnessing hate and violence acted out on the national stage, many of them needed to feel a sense of belonging to a group that understands the immigrant experience and is working towards policies that realize the humanity in immigration reform.  An attendee of the night’s event, Citlalli Bueno, of Chicago, stated, “It has been an emotionally draining week.  I needed to feel understood and that people are doing something to combat the hate and help immigrants.” Her friend, Aury Bwashi, an international student from Burundi who has been living in Chicago for three years, added, “It’s important to organize as a group, especially right now. There’s a lot of work to do, but this is a start working towards the ideals that will make the world a better place.”

Thank you to those contributing to this post, Paul Aguilera for your photos, and Peter Fugiel and Allison Tenn

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