The Quest to Live Unafraid

May 15th, 2013 | NUVO | Link to Article
Sayra Perez next to a mural she painted in conjunction with the Near West Collaborative neighborhood cleanup efforts under a bridge near Warman Street and Oliver Avenue. She said the bird, which is part of the Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance logo, symbolizes flying a away from fear. - Cinthya Perez

Sayra Perez next to a mural she painted in conjunction with the Near West Collaborative neighborhood cleanup efforts under a bridge near Warman Street and Oliver Avenue. She said the bird, which is part of the Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance logo, symbolizes flying a away from fear.
When Sayra Perez left an Indiana Canine Assistant Network training session at the Indiana Women's Prison last week, she was in a minor collision — an incident in which she said she was the victim. But not long after the police arrived, she was in handcuffs, on her way to the Marion County Jail.

Perez, 21, is undocumented. She made the decision to drive without a license. To some people, that is the end of the story. No more need be said. But to Perez, who has been actively involved in efforts to enact immigration reform, the incident highlights the indignities facing undocumented people, the need to change existing law and a commitment to live unafraid.

IMPD answered some preliminary questions for this story, and shared the police report. In short, according to IMPD media relations, the police department exists to enforce the law, not dictate policy. The official line: Officers do not check immigration papers and when they catch someone driving without a license, they issue a ticket.

From a law enforcement turf standpoint, such divisions make sense. Immigration is handled and enforced at the federal level. But immigration reform activists point to thousands of deportation cases of people arrested in Indiana where "traffic offenses" are listed as the primary charge, underscoring a reality that for undocumented people, minor infractions often carry major-league consequences.

Isaias Guerrero of IndyCAN plays Amazing Grace at Saturday's prayer vigil for immigration reform. - Patricia Castañeda"There've been around 4,700 deportations [of people arrested in Indiana] in two years — out of those, 30 percent were for traffic offenses," said Isaias Guerrero of the Indianapolis Congregation Action Network, which has made immigration reform and support of the undocumented community one of its main priorities.

"That's the outrage: The Obama administration came up with memos saying if you are not considered a threat to the community you should be released — that's what we're not finding. We are wondering why this is still happening."

[Guerrero based his figures on information he received from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in response to a Freedom of Information Act Request.]

In Perez's case, driving a vehicle without having received a license was one of three charges made against her upon her arrest — the other two being disorderly conduct and violating rules for a turn at an intersection.

Revisiting an Accident

The facts of the case are currently under dispute.

The accident happened at the intersection of Girls School Road and 21rst Street.

According to Perez, she was heading south on Girls School and made a left-hand turn, guided by the traffic signal's green arrow, when a driver heading north on Girls School also made an east-bound turn and collided with her car's back right-side.

According to the police report, the other driver claimed Perez was speeding and hit him. Perez points to the scrapes over her right rear tire and asks how it is possible that she hit him.

That debate, however, was quickly overshadowed by other issues that, within minutes, led to Perez's arrest. Those facts are also a matter of dispute. The police report filed by Officer Robert Lowe culminates with him standing beside her car, ordering her to get out several times.

"She kept going through papers," the report reads. "I ordered her out twice more. She ignored my orders. I took her by the left arm and pulled her out of the car. She started yelling that I had no right and violently attempted to pull away. I placed her in cuffs and told her that she was being arrested for operating a motor vehicle without ever receiving a valid license."

Perez said she was on the phone with her attorney's office, searching through glove box papers, looking for her registration when the officer approached and said, "I think it's time for you to hang up and step out of the car." As she was telling the attorney's assistant that the officer wanted her to get out of the car, she said the officer repeated himself a second time and, as she reached for the door to pull herself out, he grabbed her arm and handcuffed her before she knew what has happening.

"I may have been rude," Perez said. "But I promise you, not till after I was handcuffed. I did everything I was asked. Until he yanked me out of the car — and I was already handcuffed. And I thought, 'Well, I'm already going to go down, let's do this pridefully — not showing them fear.'

"It is really humiliating. I wouldn't want my family members, my friends to go through something with this. Just because I don't have license — even though I'm not at fault — that you can get put away."

Deeper Issues

Some states — Illinois, for instance — issue drivers licenses to undocumented people. Indiana State Sen. Frank Mrvan, D-Hammond, presented a bill to the 2013 General Assembly suggesting that Indiana do the same. It did not receive a hearing.

This case has yet to be resolved, and really, to Perez and to her supporters with the Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance and the Indianapolis Congregation Action Network, the protests that arose after her arrest are not about a wholesale indictment of the police — it's about sparking dialogue and understanding. The case to activists serves as a springboard to raise awareness of the challenges undocumented people face in their lives, and that social justice demands change.

"With Syra, and the situation that Dreamers face, it's particularly sensitive," said her attorney, Kevin Muñoz. "They were raised here and they're living in fear of deportation and authority, and denied an identity, which itself is a human right."

[The term "Dreamers" refers to young undocumented people who could find a path to citizenship if Congress were to ever act on so-called Dream Act legislation. Proponents of immigration reform are currently encouraging Congress to support Senate Bill 744, an immigration reform bill currently under consideration by the Senate Judiciary Committee.]

Muñoz refers to the wider issue of deportations, which can spring from arrests for minor infractions, as "crimigration." And he hopes that through more discussion and education, officials will begin to better understand the "humanitarian concerns" that many undocumented people face.

Perez moved to the U.S. with her mom and sisters when she was five. The rest of her family already lived here and her grandfather was a citizen. In the late '90s, he applied for their citizenship, a process that can take decades. When he died two years ago, Perez said, "the process was put on pause." She has also applied for the Deferred Action for Action for Childhood Arrival program, which would provide a two-year work permit and a social security number so that she could get a driver's license.

Meanwhile she is stuck in limbo.

"People have responsibilities, they have lives, they have children, they have to go to work and always isn't at walking distance or a bus isn't available," she said. "You can't always catch a ride. If people could avoid it they wouldn't do it. You have to try to live as well as you can. There are some things you can't avoid and some you just have to get around."

Alternative Consequences

Not everyone makes the decision to drive, a path that carries different consequences.

Guadalupe Pimentel is, like Perez, and member of the Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance. She said her mother is terrified of deportation and won't let her drive.

"It's very difficult, if I have to get somewhere but my dad can't take me," Pimentel said. "At times I may seem unreliable because I'll be late or say I can't make it. I could try harder, but it is hard. It has cost me, my reputation."

She looks at Perez's case as an opportunity to encourage the undocumented community to stand up and share their stories — to connect with a larger community of supporters. Erick Gama and Omar Gama, both students at IU Bloomington, and Guadalupe Pimentel from Ivy Tech were part of the group arrested two years ago in Gov. Mitch Daniels' office.

Ironically, Perez's arrest happened just three days before the two-year anniversary of her last arrest — in the office of then-Governor Mitch Daniels. She, Pimentel and other undocumented students were arrested during a sit-in in which they had hoped to have an opportunity to voice to the governor their objections to a 2011 bill that prevented undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition rates.

With that arrest came a sense of responsibility, Pimentel said, a responsibility that Perez is shouldering in her current situation.

"We need to help people that think they don't have a voice, because they do," Pimentel said. "We must share our story to help others. Even though I'm undocumented, I have a lot of privilege. We need to use our privilege to help people with less privilege."

IndyCAN is searching for a place where people can publicly share stories about the victimization that can accompany deportations.

Erick Gama and Omar Gama, both students at IU Bloomington, and Guadalupe Pimentel from Ivy Tech were part of the group arrested two years ago in Gov. Mitch Daniels' office.
Steve Pavey / Anthony Palma and the Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance (for students)

Adopted Hoosiers

Perez recalled testifying about the 2011 tuition bill and having a senator ask another bill supporter why lawmakers should bother with undocumented youth when they should be concerned about "our own kids" being able to pay for education.

"I hear that often," Perez said. "'What about our kids?' And I hate that. I am your kid. I may be adopted, but I am your kid.

"When I think about home, I think about here. I don't remember what Mexico is like; I don't have anything to go back for."

She was excited that Gov. Mike Pence just signed a law enabling current undocumented students to keep in-state tuition. When she lost in-state tuition, the bills became too much to bear. Now she thinks that she will probably allow her to finish school pre-vet studies. The tuition break will not apply to kids who are not yet in college.

"It's sad to me," Perez said. "How do I encourage kids graduating now? They just want to go to school. How bad can that be?"

On the Saturday following Perez's arrest, activists with the Indianapolis Congregation Action Network and the Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance gathered at the Circle Downtown to hold a prayer vigil and spread awareness of the issues undocu