Freedom From Fear Awards: “Coming Out” a Political Act for Queer Undocumented Youth

Freedom From Fear Awards: “Coming Out” a Political Act for Queer Undocumented Youth

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Editor's Note: The newly established Freedom From Fear Award recognizes people who put aside their fear of immigration laws and made a significant impact on immigrants and refugees. This is the fourth of six articles profiling some of the awardees. For a complete list of winners, visit the award's website.

Immigrant rights activists are increasingly taking a page from the LGBT rights movement, encouraging more students to “come out” as undocumented.

Drawing inspiration from openly gay San Francisco politician Harvey Milk, who saw coming out as a political act, undocumented immigrants Tania Unzueta, 27, and Reyna Wences, 20, used their experiences coming out – both as queer and undocumented -- in their fight against the criminalization of undocumented youth.

Originally from Mexico City and now studying at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), Unzueta and Wences met in 2007 at Chicago’s Radio Arte, a free broadcast journalism program for young people. Unzueta taught journalism there and Wences was a student who eventually became a producer. Two years later, they met Rigo Padilla, another student in the program, who was facing deportation.

The three were honored with a Freedom From Fear Award for their courageous leadership roles fighting Padilla’s deportation order and organizing a national “coming out” day for undocumented immigrants. The award recognizes individuals for their tremendous acts of courage despite personal risks, on behalf of immigrants and refugees.

Padilla, 23, had moved to Chicago in 1994 when he was six years old. When he was arrested for suspicion of driving under the influence and driving without a license in February 2009, Chicago police forwarded his information to U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, and he quickly found himself in deportation proceedings. He was scheduled to be sent back to his native Mexico on Dec. 16, 2009.

Unzueta and Wences decided to “make noise” – as Unzueta calls it -- and draw attention to Padilla’s case.

Wences and Unzueta, along with other organizers, flooded the Department of Homeland Security with thousands of faxes arguing that as a “sanctuary city,” Chicago police should not have turned Padilla over to federal immigration authorities. Handwritten petitions were passed around schools. Online petitions were circulated on Facebook and other social media sites. Professors at UIC voiced their support for Padilla through e-mails emphasizing his academic excellence, leadership, and community involvement.

They successfully lobbied the Chicago City Council to pass a resolution on Padilla’s behalf to halt his deportation. They made enough noise to attract the attention of U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky, D-Ill., who introduced a private bill on behalf of Padilla, convincing DHS to stay his deportation.

In the midst of organizing, Padilla, Unzueta and Wences noticed the large presence of undocumented youth coming out in support of Padilla.

The three launched the Immigrant Youth Justice League in October 2009, a Chicago-based organization led by undocumented youth working toward immigrant rights.

Unzueta and Wences organized the first National Coming Out of the Shadows Day, the first day of a weeklong national “coming out” rally they helped create for undocumented youth to share their personal stories, as a strategy to shine light on a population that had long remained in the shadows.

“We marched from Union Park to the front of the immigration building in downtown Chicago. Eight of us went up to the mic and shared our stories. We made a space to share our stories, to show ourselves as undocumented and unafraid,” said Wences.

“Coming out is not just empowering you and claiming a voice,” she said, “it’s also about claiming a voice, a space, and humanizing an issue that has been dehumanized.”

For Unzueta and Wences, the experience of being queer women gave them another perspective on being undocumented: Both populations were relegated to the shadows; both could use the act of “coming out” as a political tactic to bring attention to their communities.

The two also have experienced internal conflict battling over their queer and undocumented identities.

Growing up, Wences had trouble coming to terms with her undocumented identity.

“Ever since I got here my family told me that I couldn’t talk about it or else they [friends or neighbors] were going to call the migra,” said Wences. “For a lot of years I would lie about it, and make up excuses why I couldn’t get a license or travel.”

After coming out as queer to her family and graduating high school in 2009, Wences started to have suicidal thoughts due to the limited options she had because of her immigration status.

“I had to turn down many colleges because I couldn’t accept any colleges because of the money,” said Wences.

At the end of 2009 Wences tried to commit suicide because she felt so alone.

It was during the fight against Padilla’s deportation that Wences became more involved in the undocumented youth movement.

“That’s when I finally realized that just because being undocumented brings limitations, it doesn’t mean you can’t do anything about it,” said Wences.

Like Wences, Unzueta realized how important it was to come out after struggling to embrace both queer and undocumented identities.

In 2003, at age 20, Unzueta came out as queer to her family.

“It was then that I started thinking about identity. It was at that moment that I realized that being undocumented was just (as much) a part of my identity as being queer,” said Unzueta.

But it was sometimes hard to balance both identities in their work in the LGBT and immigrant rights movements.

During her work for immigrant rights, Wences found herself hiding her queer identity because she “didn’t want to hurt the campaign” by adding her queer identity to the immigrant rights movement. It wasn’t until the National Coming Out of the Shadows Day that Wences felt she could share both identities.

Unzueta, who was involved in organizing the Chicago Dyke March for two years, noted that a lot of her gay friends didn’t know she was undocumented. “When I was doing Dyke March, I felt (that) talking about immigration was taking away from the cause,” said Unzueta.

According to Unzueta, it is only recently that LGBT organizations have gotten more involved in immigrant rights. She is currently working part-time with the Association of Latino Men for Action (ALMA) on a project to build a stronger coalition of LGBT organizations interested in immigrant rights.

“This project is a huge deal because as far I know, it’s one of the first LGBT and immigrant rights coalitions,” Unzueta said.


The first Freedom from Fear Awards honors “ordinary people who have committed extraordinary acts of courage on behalf of immigrants and refugees -- individuals who have taken a risk, set an example, and inspired others to awareness or action.” The Freedom from Fear Award was created by philanthropic leaders Geri Mannion and Taryn Higashi and administered and produced by Public Interest Projects.