Credit: Thumy Phan

Election years suck, especially if you’re undocumented. Unable to vote, undocumented immigrants have to watch from the sidelines as millions of citizens decide who will shape immigration policy (and their lives) for the next four years. But voting isn’t the only way to participate politically, and for decades, undocumented immigrants have found ways to have their voices heard and serve their communities.

The history of undocumented political participation in Chicago is rich. In the 1980s, churches across Chicago joined the sanctuary movement and offered to harbor undocumented immigrants fleeing from Central America, and the Chicago Religious Task Force on Central America held rallies to bring awareness to the plight of the refugees. In the mid-2000s, Chicago was the site of large marches for immigration reform that spread to the rest of the country. But the city isn’t the only site of undocumented activism.

Chicago’s surrounding suburbs serve as an important space for the undocumented community. A 2014 report by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights found that 54 percent of undocumented immigrants in Illinois live in suburban Chicago. Despite their large presence, undocumented immigrants in the suburbs can often feel overshadowed and overlooked compared to their counterparts in the city.

Growing up undocumented in the suburbs can be an isolating experience—at least that’s how I felt. I knew my family was undocumented, but I didn’t know many others who shared my status, despite the fact that Cicero, the town I grew up in, has the largest concentration of undocumented people in suburban Cook County. One of my strongest memories is when my seventh grade social studies teacher told the class that “illegal immigrants” don’t pay taxes, and that any undocumented classmates of ours were going to school for free on their citizen’s parents tax money.

I moved out of the suburbs when I was 14, but I was curious as to how things have changed (or haven’t) for undocumented immigrants, especially in a post-Trump world. I spoke to three undocumented immigrants in the Chicago suburbs about their relationship to the suburbs, their thoughts on the election, and the political work they’ve done for their communities.

It’s Wednesday, November 4, the morning after the presidential election, and votes are still being counted in key swing states. The remaining votes seem to be pointing in Joe Biden’s favor, but the Democratic landslide that’s been predicted for weeks by major news outlets didn’t happen.

Fernando, 26, a DACA recipient from Lake County, thinks the results—or lack thereof—repudiate the Democratic party’s strategy against Donald Trump. “The election shouldn’t have been a toss-up, it should have been the easiest win,” he says. “The fact that it is so close just shows how Joe Biden and the Democrats absolutely failed.” (City Bureau is withholding Fernando’s last name for privacy reasons.)

Fernando’s family originally lived in Guerrero, a state in Mexico he describes as having “lots of corruption [and] lots of violence.” His mother made the difficult choice of moving the family to the United States in the mid-90s to keep them safe. They’ve lived in Lake County for over 20 years.

There’s a mix of working-class Latinx immigrants and wealthier white citizens in their town. Fernando remembers seeing this difference clearly when he was in high school. He and his undocumented classmates found each other through their exclusion from activities their white, citizen classmates could participate in. When it was time to take driver’s ed, they knew getting a license was off the table. “We’d always be the same people leaving whenever anybody was doing anything that could get us in trouble,” he says. “And we figured it out after a while, even though our parents were very strict with us about not talking about [our immigration statuses].”

He slowly became politically engaged after high school when he noticed Obama’s handling of the Ferguson protests and the Flint water crisis. “It really changed my view of him,” he says. “I started feeling like the Democratic Party really wasn’t supporting vulnerable communities the way I thought we had.” Instead, he was drawn to Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign because of its stance on ending the imperialism that Fernando saw as the root cause of immigration. Noncitizens can’t donate to political campaigns, so he focused on encouraging his friends who are citizens to donate. This year he was an official campaign volunteer, door-knocking with canvassers.

Fernando started college wanting to major in environmental science. To make extra money during the school year, he took a job at his college’s writing center, where he noticed a lot of students didn’t have the writing skills they should have learned in high school. He also realized how much fun he had working with kids and teaching them writing, reading, and math—which also showed him how he could make a difference through education. “[If] children don’t have a good base when they’re young, they can’t really build on it,” he says. Soon after, he shifted his focus to teaching.

Now he works at a community center serving the Latinx community of Lake County—a mix of established Mexican immigrants and newly arrived immigrants from Central America—helping elementary students with homework.

Fernando recalls that when he was young, the schools in his area weren’t prepared to teach the Latinx community—barely any of the teachers spoke Spanish. Now, they can teach every student in English and Spanish—but kids still face cultural barriers, he notes. One of Fernando’s students, a second grader, doesn’t feel like speaking Spanish at school because he gets made fun of by other students. “A lot of the racism and mistreatment of the [Latinx] community is still there, despite the changes that they’ve made,” he says.

His organization is a longstanding part of the community—helping local Latinx residents get legal assistance and fill out applications for food stamps, unemployment, and medical services. “When [my family] first arrived,” he adds, “we were using some of those services.” After the pandemic started, the community center partnered with a local pantry to provide families with weekly groceries.

Fernando hopes to one day be a school principal so that he can have a say in moving around resources to address the community’s needs. Regardless of how he does it, providing support for his community is something Fernando sees himself doing for the rest of his life.

“I personally don’t think I would be where I am without the support of my community. They’ve fundraised for me, they supported me in many different ways,” he says. Fernando recognizes not everyone in his community will have the same opportunities he’s had. “They face obstacles and roadblocks that I learned how to overcome,” he adds. “So for me to not share that with them—I feel wouldn’t be right. ”

It’s November 9, a few days after Biden has been projected as the winner of the 2020 presidential election. Mateo Uribe-Rios, a 27-year-old undocumented Colombian activist with DACA, is feeling “cautiously optimistic” about Biden’s presidential win, and he hopes the president-elect will keep his promises of restoring DACA.

Still, the election results have validated Uribe-Rios’s fears about voters in the United States: racism and xenophobia, as exemplified by the current president, are not a strong enough factor to vote Trump out in a landslide. “We’re getting down to the tee, which really shows to me that 50 percent of this country does not care about people like me.”

Growing up in Berwyn, a western suburb of Chicago, Uribe-Rios thought he was the only undocumented immigrant at his school (though later he learned he was not). People of color made up the majority of students, but most of his teachers were white. He remembers his white teachers constantly doubting his abilities and questioning whether he was ready for honors classes despite having better grades than a white friend who was recommended for honors. “They transformed my life in a way where it made me feel pretty worthless,” he says.

It wasn’t until he started as an undergrad at the University of Illinois in Chicago that he met an openly undocumented immigrant. “It was like a shifting experience for me,” he says. “This person talked about being undocumented in class. I want to do that, too. I want to feel brave enough to talk about it.”

While at UIC, Uribe-Rios joined a group of undocumented students and allies called Fearless Undocumented Alliance, which aimed at making the UIC campus more “undocufriendly.” For about four years, they advocated for the Illinois Retention of Illinois Students and Equity (RISE) Act, a law that eventually passed in 2019 allowing undocumented immigrants and transgender students to access state financial aid. Uribe-Rios would call students and their parents and ask them to talk to legislators and advocate for the law. The group even went downstate to Springfield to talk to legislators directly.

After graduating, Uribe-Rios and a group of his friends started Protection for All, a volunteer-run collective of undocumented immigrants and people who don’t have a direct pathway toward citizenship, including immigrants with Temporary Protected Status. When former Attorney General Jeff Sessions rescinded DACA in September 2017, the group held a rally to “bring people out and show their frustrations towards [the] decision.” Nearly 4,000 people showed up.

Uribe-Rios is now programs coordinator at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. He works with different organizations in the coalition that provide state-funded social services to immigrants, monitoring their budgets and writing reports to send to the state. This year he helped to get out the vote in immigrant communities and to promote the Illinois “fair tax” amendment.

Uribe-Rios hasn’t lived in the suburbs since he graduated undergrad, but his parents still do. He thinks that despite the large (and growing) Latinx population in the suburbs, those communities get less attention and resources than their counterparts in the city. He’s met other activists from the suburbs who move back to organize in those communities, and he supports their endeavors, but it’s not for him. He thinks opportunities in the suburbs are limited, and he never saw a future for himself there while he was growing up. “I did not fully enjoy my experience in the suburbs,” he says. Whenever he goes back, he gets a weird feeling. “I guess I just don’t like being back.”

In the future, Uribe-Rios wants to keep working in the nonprofit realm, but wants to draw on his organizing experience to do policy advocacy. “My first love has been policy,” he says. “I want to be able to understand and work with and advocate for policies that I researched and learned [in grad school that] are beneficial to our communities.”

He brings up the example of DACA: a program created by a 2012 Obama executive order that provided rights for immigrants brought to the United States at a young age (such as himself), which has been gutted by the Trump administration. Though he hopes DACA will be reinstated by Biden, Uribe-Rios argues for a more permanent legislative solution, one that goes beyond piecemeal programs that only affect immigrants that are deemed “good.” He wants a law that “doesn’t throw other people under the bus, including parents and folks who have previous records or are incarcerated.”

Uribe-Rios’s dreams of no less than an overhaul of the way we think about immigration. One possibility? He points to how the U.S.-Mexico border functioned before the Immigration Act of 1965, when it was “more of a revolving door . . . Folks used to be able to come here to the United States to work and then come back seasonally to their homes.”

“It’s probably the most difficult thing to do,” he says. “[I want] to have an overhauled immigrant system where it doesn’t matter if you have citizenship or not, doesn’t matter if you have residency or not.”

It’s November 10, one week after election day, and most major news outlets have called the election for Biden. Giselle Rodriguez, 23, felt some relief but knew the fight was far from over. “If you’re really into the organizing world . . . you know that the president is not going to change everything,” she says. “We’re gonna hold them accountable regardless [of who they are].”

Originally from Nayarit, Mexico, Rodriguez’s family lived in several cities across the midwest before settling down in 2008 in North Chicago, a city in Lake County that borders Waukegan. An undocumented immigrant without DACA, Rodriguez says she always knew she was undocumented. But she had to navigate the experience by herself.

“Nobody talked about it,” she says, adding that some people were brought up by their families not to discuss their status. “Like, we didn’t have a club or anything . . . Nobody was doing advocacy.”

Especially in the media, but even among friends, Rodriguez says she feels people without DACA are left out of the conversation around undocumented immigrants. “We’re immigrants regardless, right?” she says. She understands people in her position are less likely to speak out because of the risk, but she still feels that it’s important to discuss narratives beyond that of the “dreamer,” the young immigrant who excels in school and has DACA, American in all but status. She points out that many older people, including her mother, have started doing political work after seeing the work their children have done, but their stories often aren’t told in the media.

She places one hand at eye level and says, “But DACA’s here.” She places her other hand slightly below her first. “And just because I don’t have DACA, I’m over here. I’m left out sometimes.”

Rodriguez first became politically active in college when she was volunteering at nonprofits fighting for workers’ rights. She noticed that in the suburbs, most nonprofit organizations tailored toward immigrants focus on offering social services, such as immigration lawyers, health and wellness programs, and translation services—especially since undocumented immigrants don’t qualify for federal benefits. But she says they were patching holes in the system, rather than advocating for policy change.

She went on to earn her master’s degree in social work, spending time as a translator and social worker at a public school in Waukegan where she helped create a Dreamers club. Earlier this year, she cofounded the Center for Immigrant Progress with other undocumented and first-generation Latinx activists—partially to address the lack of advocacy work being done in Lake and McHenry Counties.

Through the CIP, Rodriguez helps organize community conversations to provide immigrants a space to tell their stories and bring more awareness to the issues impacting the immigrant community. The organization meets with elected officials that represent Lake and McHenry County to discuss their immigration policies—over the summer, they held a virtual roundtable with U.S. Representative Brad Schneider to discuss DACA and the future of immigration legislation. They also meet with school board members to discuss how to better support immigrant parents and students. Recently, CIP worked as a part of the Pedal for Peace campaign to raise funds for a DACA recipient renewing their work permit.

As head of education for CIP, Rodriguez hopes to one day work with schools to train staff to support undocumented students. She also hopes to mentor undocumented students who have questions about accessing higher education, getting scholarships and internships, and working without DACA. “Our people, our community, have dreams just like any other people,” she says. “If you want to go to school if you’re undocumented—even if you don’t have DACA—I did it, you can definitely do it too.”

Rodriguez hopes that immigration reform and relief comes one day in the future. She’d like to visit Mexico with her mother, who hasn’t seen her own mother since leaving for the United States decades ago. While in the media the narrative around undocumented immigrants mostly focuses on DACA, she says immigrants and activists are demanding reforms beyond that. “We want citizenship for all, even our parents, even those who don’t have DACA,” she says.   v

This report was produced by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Chicago.