Philadelphia police arrest two at immigrant-rights rally

demonstrates at the ICE building in Philadelphia. She and Tania Chairez (seated in background), both illegal immigrants, were arrested. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer
demonstrates at the ICE building in Philadelphia. She and Tania Chairez (seated in background), both illegal immigrants, were arrested. DAVID SWANSON / Staff Photographer (Jessica Hyejin Lee)
Posted: March 15, 2012

Declaring themselves "undocumented, unapologetic, and unafraid," two college students, both illegal immigrants, were arrested by Philadelphia police Wednesday after a boisterous immigrant-rights protest that snarled traffic for more than an hour.

Tania Chairez, 19, a University of Pennsylvania sophomore, and Jessica Hyejin Lee, 20, a junior at Bryn Mawr College, planted themselves atop two banners they put in the roadway at 16th and Callowhill Streets at 3:15 p.m. and refused to move.

The spot is directly in front of the Philadelphia offices of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Chairez, whose parents brought her from Mexico to Arizona as a young child, and Lee, whose parents brought her from South Korea to California, said their act of civil disobedience was meant to embolden undocumented people "to come out of the shadows" and demand universal human rights.

Shouting into bullhorns and seated cross-legged in the road, they demanded an end to "deportations that are tearing families apart."

They called on authorities to release Miguel Orellana, 25, a Perkasie man originally from El Salvador, who has been in the York County, Pa., prison since September facing deportation.

Orellana and his American fiancee have two U.S.-born children. He was 9 when his family came to the United States as legal immigrants. After a DUI charge for underage drinking in 2006 and two arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana, the government revoked his legal status and targeted him for deportation.

The arrests came after about 75 demonstrators, mostly from the city's Latino and Asian youth movements and the advocacy group DreamActivist/PA, which organized the protest, assembled at LOVE Park on Wednesday.

There, several speakers, including Chairez and Lee, spoke about growing up American but undocumented.

Without legal status, said Chairez, she could not apply for a driver's license or part-time jobs, so she just told her friends that her parents are overly protective.

The hardest part of life in the shadows, she said, was seeing what it did to her parents.

"My mom said don't speak to me in Spanish outside the [home] because [others] will judge us," she recalled.

But Chairez was bilingual and said she felt the sting when people called them "wetbacks."

"I heard that. I could understand that," she said.

In high school she revealed to her guidance counselors that her family was in the United States illegally.

"I am here now at the University of Pennsylvania because people in my high school ... knew I was a human being," she said. "They saw past my immigration status."

For her part, Lee spoke of her fear - every time her mother started the family car's engine - that they would be pulled over by police and their status revealed.

From LOVE Park, the demonstrators marched to the ICE office. Spilling off the sidewalks, they chanted support for immigration reforms, including DREAM Act legislation.

The act would offer a path to legal status for illegal immigrant youths who graduate from high school and go to college or enter the military.

Last voted on by Congress in 2010, the act passed the House of Representatives but was defeated when supporters could not muster enough votes to head off a Senate filibuster. Supporters want the bill reintroduced.

The arrests marked a change in tactics for DreamActivist/PA.

Taking pages from the playbooks of the civil-rights and gay-rights movements, the immigration-reform protesters are now using high-profile arrests in an effort to build the movement and raise visibility for its cause.

The Philadelphia arrests follow similar protests since 2010 in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia and the District of Columbia, where students, often dressed in caps and gowns in a nod to the Dream Act, were arrested sitting in at government offices.

Before Wednesday's demonstration, Chairez and Lee recorded video testimonies that are now available on YouTube.

"If you are seeing this," the videos begin, "it is because I have been arrested."

Erika Almiron, executive director of Juntos, a Latino rights group in South Philadelphia, participated in Wednesday's protest.

"This marks a shift in the city," she said of the arrests. "Any time any community fights for its human rights, we have to stand with them."

Asked if she was concerned that the image of illegal immigrants getting arrested would play into the hands of the critics who already depict them as lawbreakers, she said, "What's the saying? An unjust law is no law at all?"


To see a video from immigration protest, go to www.philly.com/dreamactivist


Contact Michael Matza at 215-854-2541 or mmatza@phillynews.com.

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