On March 20 in Chicago, the six undocumented youth who were arrested last August - and charged with mob action and reckless conduct - were found not guilty.
Fanny Lopez-Martinez, 22, Jorge Mena, 24, Arianna Salgado, 19, Ireri Unzueta Carrasco, 24, Miguel Martinez, 20, and Carla Navoa, 22 - often called the Chicago Six - found themselves in court for the third and final time yesterday as Cook County Judge Peggy Chiampas declared the prosecutors had not met their burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, and so all charges against the youth were dismissed.
This decision was an historic one, the first-ever in the U.S. in which undocumented immigrants accused of violating the law in a civil disobedience action were found in a court of law to be "not guilty."
A deportation program, Secure Communities is managed by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It focuses on "identifying" undocumented citizens through local law enforcement. As a result, local police could become de facto ICE agents, and people can be deported unfairly based on the judgment (or lack thereof) of authorities. It also makes many neighborhood people fearful of calling police when the need really arises, for fear of being deported.
While the Chicago Six were clearly excited over their victory, they expressed disappointment at the length of the proceedings, during which prosecutors seemed often incapable of getting their records straight. This initially resulted in a discrepancy over what the undocumented activists were actually being charged with. The situation was exacerbated because, on two occasions, police officers did not show up in court to testify.
"While I'm excited that we were found not guilty, I was disappointed with how long the City and the State dragged it out without getting their information straight." said Mena, a University of Illinois graduate and member of the Immigrant Youth Justice League.
Mena added that, "I'm glad we tested the system, as undocumented youth, and found community support."
Lopez-Martinez happily proclaimed, "After seven months of court dates, we won the case! After I heard the decision, I felt that not only were our commitment and courage recognized, but also our movement's cause."
Judge Chiampas said that she, too, had come from an immigrant family, and therefore understood a strong need for actions like those taken by the Chicago Six, especially in the face of prejudice and corruption.
She added, however, before announcing her decision, that she felt average people should be free to go about their daily activities without protesters blocking the streets.
"Her choice of words used to describe our action was confusing," said Martinez later in response. "But I'm glad that in the end she was able to see it from our point of view."
So a question one may ask the Chicago Six now is, what is next on the horizon? Will the protests continue?
Mena believes so; "Secure Communities is still being enforced, and we need to continue bringing attention to how it is putting people into deportation proceedings and tearing families apart."
And the fight has already been taking place:
On March 10, seven undocumented youth and one friend came out to discuss their experiences with the immigration system in the U.S., in what was the third annual Chicago Coming Out of the Shadows Week - a weeklong event that celebrated citizens who are "undocumented, unafraid, and unapologetic."
One of the youth, a student named Hugo Dominguez, said, "I'm that young adult who strives daily to continue his education; applying for as many scholarships as I can, hoping to get them and working two jobs with the fear of losing them because of not having a social security number.
"I am a good student; a good son; a good brother. I am a good friend. I am a good human being. I am a person that, like all of us here, deserves to pursue his dreams."
Photo: John Wojcik/PW