In 2012, Wharton senior Tania Chairez was arrested for blocking traffic in front of the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Philadelphia. An undocumented immigrant herself, Chairez was protesting the United States’ immigration policy.
Chairez has continued her activism at Penn, co-founding Penn for Immigrant Rights. Now, about two years after her arrest, she is featured on Latina Magazine’s list of 12 Inspiring Latinas Under 25. The Daily Pennsylvanian sat down with Chairez to see what she has been working on to keep pushing her message of “undocumented and unapologetic.”
Daily Pennsylvanian: What was your reaction to being featured on Latina Magazine’s list? What does it mean for you?
Tania Chairez: So actually they never told me. They tweeted at me ... They legitimately just found my picture and wrote about me and I didn’t even know. So it was kind of exciting. I opened the link when I was at La Casa Latina, the Hispanic resource center, so everyone around me quickly spread the news. So it was fun. It was very out of the blue.
What it means for me is actually a lot less about me and more about the undocumented community. I think what it does is it brings a lot of awareness to an issue that oftentimes goes unnoticed, especially in big universities. So I think it helps in terms of getting the word out for undocumented students that they can apply to institutions like Penn and eventually be here and follow in my footsteps.
DP: Have you been involved in other activism work recently surrounding undocumented immigrants?
TC: I always tell people that I found myself in Philadelphia before I found myself in Penn. As in, the Philadelphia community really helped me grow as an individual, and once I found my identity and created my identity as an undocumented Mexican woman in Philadelphia, I then brought that identity with me and created it at Penn. So from there I established Penn for Immigrant Rights ... with Angel Contrera, who is a 2013 graduate. Actually, my most exciting thing is that right now we’re working on a scholarship. So we’ve raised almost $3,000 I would say, and our goal for the semester is to raise another $2,000 to reach the $5,000 goal. We’re hoping that once it’s established we can put it into the Philadelphia Foundation and have it as a yearly scholarship available for Philadelphia immigrant youth regardless of immigration status in the hopes that undocumented students will apply.
DP: What’s it like doing this sort of activism at Penn?
TC: I’m glad that people talk about immigration now. I feel like four years ago when I got to Penn, there was very little discussion about immigration so at least I can say I’m proud of that. I think any discussion, whether it’s pro or con or whatever range of the political spectrum ... is actually very good and conducive to a learning environment. I found people to be very supportive at Penn.
I think there is still a lot of growth potential and that’s what I’m kind of working on with Penn for Immigrant Rights. We do a lot of trainings. We call them “undocu-trainings.” We’ve really targeted either staff or administration, as well as student leaders. We’re working on just making sure as many student leaders as possible know what it even means to be an undocumented person. And we’re trying to make this a yearly sort of thing so that everyone is aware of the issues that some of their peers may be experiencing on campus.
DP: Looking ahead, what do you see as the future for Penn for Immigrant Rights and for yourself?
TC: Penn for Immigrant Rights was established only really as a forum for discussion, so I think in that sense it will be very very helpful in the years to come ... I do not think immigration reform will happen anytime soon but I do think the discussion around immigration reform will continue to be very lively. So I think Penn for Immigrant Rights has a lot of work ahead of them to engage the Penn community and maybe even more so the Philadelphia community.
As far as myself, I’m actually returning to Phoenix. So I was born in Mexico. Because I’m undocumented, and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, I’m returning to Phoenix to do Teach for America, and I’m really excited because this is going to be my opportunity to empower the undocumented population in Arizona and tell them that they can make it. Because no one told me that when I was in high school, and I wish someone had.
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