Alma Sheppard-Matsuo artwork

What It Feels Like To Be Considered a “Public Safety Concern” for Fighting for My Community’s Survival

By Ireri Unzueta Carrasco
Organized Communities Against Deportations

In March of this year, immigrant rights organizer Ireri Unzueta Carrasco, received a letter from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) stating the agency considered her a “public safety concern” due to her participation in peaceful civil disobediences, and that therefore they would not be renewing her DACA application. Sign the petition to support Ireri and get background on her lawsuit against USCIS here.

Photo credit: #Not1More

Photo credit: #Not1More

In early September of 2015 I received a letter from the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) letting me know that my renewal for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) had been denied. There was no explanation, no number to call. It simply read that I “had not established that [I] warrant a favorable exercise of prosecutorial discretion” and that I “may not file an appeal or motion to reopen/reconsider this decision, ” leaving me with no options for follow up, questions, or much of anything. I put the letter in my bag, not letting the words settle in, and hurried to school to pay the tuition for the City Colleges of Chicago that had just been increased that semester.

My relationship to the United States is a mixture of anger, love, and gaining strength from people through building solidarity and understanding. I came to the US with my mother, father and sister when I was six years old. In the almost 22 years I have lived here I saw learning opportunities pass me by in high school and college. Studying abroad was not a feasible option for me because it would mean getting banned from returning to the US for ten years — and not being able to see my parents and sister was not a trade off I was willing to make in order to study abroad. Because I could not go visit them, I saw family members grow up through pictures. I passed up jobs that asked me for my paperwork. And I limited my life goals and aspirations, not studying medicine or teaching because what would be the point if I could not actually work in these fields. Then this year, after the DACA was denied, I could not attend my grandmother’s and grandfather’s funerals or wakes, instead viewing them through a video stream from my cousin’s phone.

In the almost 22 years I have lived in the United States I have seen my parents work really hard to make our house feel like a home. They sacrificed and saved so my grandparents could come visit us, and so we would have more than just pictures to remember them by. They looked for and found the resources for my sister and me to learn piano, gymnastics, swimming (all at the local public park), and they taught us to read everything so that we could find all the opportunities available. I also saw my parents organizing in different groups, ranging from the local school council to coalitions in defense of immigrant rights, to create the changes in our community and society they thought were needed.

Photo credit: #Not1More

Photo credit: #Not1More

I have also learned that creating community and organizing is the best survival strategy. In 2010, I and other young people came out of the shadows, unapologetically, and shared our stories of being undocumented, many of us for the first time. I shared mine because I was tired of being frustrated, and because I wanted other youth to feel the connection I had felt that first time I sat in a room filled with twenty other youth and one by one we said our name, declared our lack of “citizenship” status, and shared our stories. I didn’t have to explain my anger or frustration because they understood where I was coming from. After that step, there was no going back for me. I have been part of multiple direct actions publicly voicing my lack of status including four civil disobedience actions where I got arrested.

I believe every person has the right to take part in direct action, making their own determination of risk with the knowledge of what the consequences may be. I chose risking arrest to highlight the injustices of the immigration system and to show people that when we are organized, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will think twice about their actions. On June 15, 2012 when the Secretary of Homeland Security announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) allowing some undocumented young people temporary and renewable exemption from deportation, I was conflicted. Part of me was excited that I would be able to have work related opportunities I had not had before, but I also knew several friends who would not qualify for DACA or get their work permits because they had arrived in the US after turning 16, or simply because they had not made the cut off date for being in the country. This did not feel fair.

I am a strong believer in creating access to opportunities for everyone, and when these opportunities do not exist or when you are blocked from them, I believe that we can and should create these opportunities ourselves. Although DACA was imperfect, it was won through struggle, and offered some of us a choice. So I applied for DACA and received it in 2013. This was the first time I got a job where I was not nervous to sign the work agreement form because I knew there would not be a problem if they checked my documents. I was both relieved and angry because I was the same person as before, with the same qualifications, but now a piece of plastic and a piece of paper gave me access to a job I loved doing. I worked and saved up to go back to school to further my skills in working with youth, plants and the environment.

So that day in September of last year, when I received the DACA denial letter, I was mad. I was mad about the City Colleges making it harder to pay tuition if you did not have the time to be a full time student, and I was mad because I would now have to deal with the denial of deferred action in my case. With the denial letter in my bag, I paid the tuition hike, walked briskly to the greenhouse where I was studying horticulture, shaking with anger and nervousness. I was unsure how to proceed as I breathed in the pungent humid air while the bright reds and deep pinks of the celosia bombay flowers mixed with my tears of frustration.

Photo credit: #Not1More

Photo credit: #Not1More

It was not just that I no longer had a work permit, which complicated the payment situation for the jobs I was working, it was that the person who reviewed my case seemed to have absolute power over this decision. This person had “discretion” to decide my fate and there was no transparent way to question this decision.

My family and I worked with attorney Mony Ruiz Velasco to challenge the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) to follow their own procedures and send a notice with an intent to decline. Senator Durbin’s office also called the Texas USCIS office where my case was processed and was told that I had something in my file from after 2012 that they might not know about. The only difference between my first DACA application and the renewal is an arrest I had in 2013 when blocking the street while carrying out an action of civil disobedience to call attention to the large numbers of deportations under President Obama. No one was convicted during this act of civil disobedience. My DACA renewal was denied even after I provided USCIS with my entire arrest history with all the respective certified dispositions: no convictions.

The frustrating thing is that the agencies that undocumented and immigrant communities deal with on a daily basis – ICE, USCIS, the Border Patrol, and police departments across the country – seem to believe they can get away with anything, and for a long time have done so using tactics of fear, division, and violence. These institutions are protected by local and federal administrations under the guise of bringing “safety” while their brutal acts go unnoticed by the larger population with the exception of the communities of people directly affected by them.

For a long time police in Chicago were protected by the Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez while her office prosecuted survivors of violence and harassment. The President of the United States defends the actions of ICE, even when they have resulted in violations of human rights by locking people up in detention centers where they are not given adequate medical care. Angel Padilla has a cancerous tumor yet is currently in detention. People incarcerated in detention centers are routinely retaliated against by ICE with threats of expedited removal, confinement, and relocation for organizing to demand humane treatment and conditions.

Initially, I did not make my denial of DACA public because I was still going through the motions of waiting for responses, first from the USCIS Texas office talking with Senator Durbin’s office, and then waiting from the ombudsman (a person with a position in charge of investigating an individual’s complaints), and really just feeling like when looking at the bigger picture, my being denied a work permit was a miniscule thing compared to the institutional violence faced by marginalized community members every day. But by not saying anything, I realized I was agreeing to their procedures, their lack of transparency and their arbitrary decisions. I was letting the USCIS’ decisions dictate the path of my life, forcing me to play out different scenarios in my head of how I might explain to the thirty high school students I teach why I can no longer work with them.

We must hold the institutions and individuals that influence our lives accountable. Do not let our communities be divided and figure out the things you can do, whether it’s making a phone call and signing a petition to stop deportations or donating to an organization fighting for the right to higher education. It is in this spirit of accountability, of upholding the right to contest unjust laws and policies, that I ask for your support. My case is one example in a broader struggle to fight for the recognition of the right of all human beings to organize, to love, to learn, to work, and to live with dignity and respect regardless of immigration status

Ireri Unzueta Carrasco is an educator, gardener, daughter and sister. Since 2010 when immigrant youth first came out of the shadows, she’s been part of the push of undocumented people struggling for civil and human rights.


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