CHICAGO - Six undocumented students known as the Chicago Six returned to court today, after having been arrested in August during a protest against U.S. immigration policy. As they soon learned, their case is not yet over.
Fanny Lopez-Martinez, Jorge Mena, Arianna Salgado, Ireri Unzueta, Carla Navoa, and Miguel Martinez are community organizers with the Immigrant Youth Justice League. After protesting the deeply flawed Secure Communities deportation program, they face charges of mob action and obstruction of traffic. Their previous court date was postponed, due to a missing police officer called as witness for the prosecution.
Though their last appearance was in Chicago's Circuit Court, this time they were brought into criminal court, located off the beaten path in the Western part of the city.
The unwelcome air in the court was hard to ignore, as was the arrogant behavior this reporter witnessed. When one of the Chicago Six passed through security, he forgot to remove something metal from his pocket, and was told by a police officer to walk back through the metal detector. When he did not immediately hear the officer, the officer bluntly asked if he understood English, with a nasty sneer.
It was sad to see this display of ignorance in the face of an intelligent person fighting so hard to ensure justice.
The six defendants, surrounded in the court building lobby by persons charged with crimes ranging from drug dealing to assault, seemed out of place coming there to defend themselves for exercising their free speech rights.
"It's very intimidating," said Navoa, 22, who came here from the Philippines as a child. "And I think that was their intention. It says a lot" about how the State of Illinois feels about our plight, she said, in that it seems as though they're making things difficult. They're sending a clear message by drawing this case out. We're hoping to be able to testify."
Asked how she felt about the outcome of the trial being up in the air, Navoa replied, "It's frustrating. We have to continue to put parts of our lives on hold. And with school and all, you know, keeping up with coursework is hard. And our parents constantly worry.
"We want to continue to reach out to people," she added. "People are so afraid of punishment. But they need to push back against [corrupt] laws and this oppressive system. I want to continue to help other undocumented people to do that."
Meanwhile, 12 parents and students who were arrested in Montgomery, Ala. last November - including Chicago community organizer and activist Martin Unzueta - were brought into criminal court in Alabama on Feb. 27. Unzueta appeared today to support the Chicago Six, and explained what the verdict was in Alabama:
"We need to pay a $300 fine for obstructing traffic, and that's it," he said. "Homeland Security did not get involved; because we are activists, DHS didn't want all that attention and involvement in politics."
Unzueta noted that more important than the act of civil disobedience, which led to their Alabama arrests, "are the youth themselves, and the national network of organizations they're involved with."
Navoa seemed to agree. "We need organization in every state. We need to network - to support each other. I'm trying to be there for everyone and provide support." As for the trial, she added nervously, "I feel unprepared. But I'm hoping for an early resolution to this."
That resolution, however, did not come. Judge Peggy Chiampas observed that once again, a police officer required to be present was, in fact, not there, as there was an apparent death in his family. Out of respect for this, Chiampas set a new court date for the Chicago Six: "Tuesday, March 20th," she said. "9 a.m. sharp."
She suggested, however, that the State had made a mess of a few things, as, due to lack of signed dates on documents - and the presence of a different judge during the last court date - there was some confusion as to what exactly the Chicago Six were being charged with. Whether this was disorganization on the part of the State, or deliberate causing of confusion, no one could tell.
Before the court was dismissed, however, Chiampas told the State's attorney to basically get its act together.
For the Chicago Six, meanwhile, their fight continues. But if the words emblazoned upon their shirts are any indication, they'll be keeping their heads - and hopes - up in the weeks to come: "Undocumented. Unafraid. Unapologetic."
Photo: John Wojcik/PW