Undocumented Penn student arrested at protest
Sophomore Tania Chairez was arrested after blocking traffic in front of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement field office
March 14, 2012, 7:48 pm · Updated March 16, 2012, 12:31 am·
David Swanson | Philadelphia Inquirer
Philadelphia Police arrested and detained Wharton sophomore Tania Chairez — an undocumented immigrant — at a protest yesterday afternoon in front of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement offices in Philadelphia.
Before her arrest, Chairez had entered the ICE building to declare her undocumented status and deliver a letter demanding the release of Miguel Orellana, according to a statement by DreamActivist Pennsylvania, a youth-led group that advocates for the rights of immigrant communities. Orellana is an undocumented male who has been detained in the York County Prison since July 2011.
Chairez — along with Jessica Hyejin Lee, an undocumented immigrant and junior at Bryn Mawr College — was arrested after she blocked traffic in front of the ICE office at 16th and Callowhill streets.
According to College sophomore Yessenia Gutierrez, who attended the demonstration, Chairez and Lee were sitting down in the street for about an hour until they were arrested. During that time, protesters offered support from the sidewalk with chants like “Undocumented and unafraid” and “When our communities are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back,” Gutierrez said.
Earlier in the day, Chairez, Lee and about 75 others participated in a rally at LOVE Park. At the rally, Chairez and Lee publicly declared their undocumented status.
About four student members of the newly formed Penn for Immigrant Rights were among those in attendance.
Prior to her arrest, Chairez had written an email and recorded a video on YouTube with word of her intentions.
“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.”
According to DreamActivist organizer and Eastern University sophomore Fernanda Marroquin, another undocumented immigrant who attended the protest yesterday, Chairez and Lee “refused to move because we know that our community constantly lives in fear and they wanted to assure people that we’ve had enough.”
Marroquin added that it is unclear what might happen to Chairez and Lee, as undocumented immigrants often face added difficulties in jail.
School of Social Policy & Practice assistant professor Toorjo Ghose — a member of OccupyPenn and Occupy Philadelphia who was arrested in late November on charges of failure to disperse upon official order, conspiracy and obstruction of a highway — applauded Chairez’s actions.
“It is an extremely courageous action,” he said. “It undermines the extreme sense of vulnerability of the community that Tania hails from.”
Ghose added that, when he spent an overnight in jail, there was an ICE agent present for questioning of potential undocumented immigrants.
Wharton and College junior and Latino Coalition Chair Angel Contrera — who, along with Chairez, is a co-founder of Penn for Immigrant Rights — said he had spoken previously with Chairez about her intentions on Wednesday.
Contrera said Chairez’s actions were intended to inform not only the Penn community of the issues surrounding undocumented immigrants, but also the Philadelphia community as a whole.
In October, Chairez first came out as an undocumented immigrant in a Daily Pennsylvanian guest column called “Undocumented and unapologetic.”
Since that time, she has worked with groups like DreamActivist Pennsylvania and Penn for Immigrant Rights to increase the visibility of undocumented issues across campus, as well as to encourage others to reveal their undocumented status.
Looking ahead, Gutierrez, the community engagement coordinator of Penn for Immigrant Rights, said that the group will be closely monitoring Chairez’s situation while she remains in jail. Ghose added that OccupyPenn also plans to show support and solidarity for Chairez and her cause.
“I think it was an effective way of getting our campus to talk about immigration issues and not simply ignore them,” Gutierrez said. Because of Chairez’s actions, “we can’t ignore the fact that one of our own students is affected directly by immigrant rights and immigration in general.”
General Assignments Editor Jennifer Sun and City News Editor Julie Xie contributed reporting.