Demonstrating for a dream
About 120 community members came together to support Tania Chairez and the DREAM Act
March 15, 2012, 6:37 pm · Updated March 20, 2012, 12:46 am·
Justin Cohen | DP
Choking back tears and walking arm-in-arm with her roommate, Wharton sophomore Tania Chairez — an undocumented immigrant — stepped in front of the Ben Franklin statue on College Green and delivered a message to the Penn community.
“I know maybe not all of you know what it means to be undocumented,” she said, “but it really means a lot having you guys here supporting me. This is a lot bigger than just me — this is about a lot of people that are being oppressed, and I thank you so much.”
Chairez was addressing about 120 students, professors and community members who came out at 5 p.m. Thursday for a silent protest to support the sophomore, who was arrested Wednesday afternoon at a rally in front of the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices at 16th and Callowhill streets.
Chairez and Bryn Mawr College junior Jessica Hyejin Lee were released Thursday afternoon without bail on recognizance after spending an overnight in custody. Under the conditions of their release, they will be required to appear at all subsequent trials and comply with any legal proceedings.
They face charges of disorderly conduct and obstruction of highways. An arraignment has been scheduled for April 3.
From 5 p.m. until Chairez returned from jail to campus at 5:40 p.m., hundreds of passers-by in front of College Hall were greeted by a sea of white T-shirts that demonstrators wore to the protest. After an initial address by College and Wharton junior and Latino Coalition Chair Angel Contrera, protesters joined hands and formed a large circle on College Green.
“It’s really important for us to show that the undocumented community of Philadelphia and the undocumented community of Penn shouldn’t be afraid,” Contrera told the crowd. “Undocumented students have a community here on campus that will support and back them.”
Students also handed out flyers with information about the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act.
The DREAM Act is a federal bill introduced in 2001 that is designed to create a path to citizenship for students who are undocumented. The proposal failed to pass in December 2010, and a modified version was reintroduced last year.
The handouts also included information about the group DreamActivist Pennsylvania, a youth-led organization that advocates for the rights of immigrant communities. Chairez is a member of DreamActivist.
College junior Maria Silfa, who is president of Grupo Quisqueyano Dominican Student Association, said the main purpose of Thursday’s event was to “let people know what Tania did and raise more awareness around campus about the DREAM Act.”
College junior Lauren Hendrix said she came to the demonstration to better understand some of the issues undocumented students may face.
“It’s important that she gave a face to those who feel voiceless,” Hendrix said. “Whether you agree or disagree with what she did, it’s important to bring topics like these into the conversation.”
Wharton sophomore Jossiel Cruseta, who is close friends with Chairez, agreed.
“I believe 100 percent in what she’s doing,” he said. “Tania isn’t alone, and as you could tell by today, there’s an unbelievable amount of support for her cause.”
While many came out to show their support for Chairez, some took issue with the methods she used to get her point across.
Prior to her arrest, Chairez had written an email and recorded a YouTube video informing friends, supporters and community members of what she planned to do.
“If you are reading this email, I have been arrested in a planned act of civil disobedience,” she wrote. “I refuse to allow immigrant communities to be criminalized, so I am taking a stand and fighting back. I want undocumented youth to realize that they are not alone and that they can make their voices heard.”
College freshman Ryan Vesey, who saw the protest as he was coming out of Van Pelt Library, said Chairez’s actions amounted to a form of “uncivil disobedience.”
“She used disruption and illegal tactics to try to get her point across,” said Vesey, referring to the fact that Chairez had been sitting in the middle of the street for about an hour before she was arrested.
While Vesey said he did not agree with the protesters condoning Chairez’s arrest, he thinks she has been effective in getting her point across.
Chairez believes that the public nature of her actions has prevented her from getting into any further legal trouble.
She explained that, while she was initially assigned an immigration detainer by ICE — a notice that identifies undocumented immigrants who are potentially deportable — the detainer was quickly lifted.
While she was in jail overnight at 8th and Race streets, Chairez said she was told by prison guards that she had received a phone call with support from a Penn professor. Though Chairez did not know the name of the professor, she called the amount of encouragement from the community “overwhelming.”
“We are deeply concerned for Tania’s well-being, and hope that her personal efforts to bring attention to these critical issues do not jeopardize her ability to continue her studies,” University spokesperson Phyllis Holtzman wrote in an email.
Holtzman added that, while Penn does not provide any legal counsel for its students, Chairez’s arrest will not impact her status at the University.
Chairez said she has retained her own legal counsel through DreamActivist, as well as an independent criminal attorney.
In the near future, Chairez said she will continue to work with DreamActivist to lobby for the release of Miguel Orellana. Orellana is an undocumented male who has been held in the York County Jail since July 2011.
Back at Penn, though, some are hoping that Chairez’s public stand will lead to an increased dialogue about undocumented issues in general.
College senior Ollin Venegas, the external chair of Chicano cultural group MEChA, hopes Thursday’s protest will be a “catalyst to bring about even more services and support for undocumented students at Penn.”
Over the past few years, groups like MEChA have led the charge to bring the DREAM Act to the center of discussion on campus.
In February 2010, following student lobbying, Penn President Amy Gutmann publicly confirmed her support of the DREAM Act.
The Undergraduate Assembly also supported the DREAM Act through the passage of a resolution in November 2010.
Chairez said that, while she has been pleased with the support undocumented students receive at Penn, “even an institution like ours can make changes to make things even better.”
College sophomore Haley Zarrin — who is Chairez’s roommate and picked her up from jail after DreamActivist called her at around 1:30 p.m. Thursday — said Chairez’s vision for the future has been an “inspiration” for her.
“I was told that there would be a gathering, but this was beyond anything I thought we’d see,” Zarrin said in reference to Thursday’s demonstration.
Chairez agreed, but added that her efforts to lobby for undocumented immigrants are far from over.
“If achieving success means that we’re going to have to sit in the street and protest,” she said, “then that’s exactly what we’re going to do.”
City News Editor Julie Xie contributed reporting.