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Immigrants in Chicago ‘relieved’ as Biden is sworn in as president

After four years of hard-line immigration policies, advocates hope to push the new administration to make bold changes.

Matt Schreck, 43, and his husband, Fernando Gutierrez, 41, embrace as they watch the inauguration ceremony for President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris from their South Loop home, Wednesday morning, Jan. 20, 2021.
Matt Schreck, 43, and his husband, Fernando Gutierrez, 41, embrace Wedneday as they watch the inauguration ceremony for President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris from their South Loop home.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

For the past five years, Fernando Gutierrez has felt like the Trump administration used immigrants like him as a “bogeyman” to advance its agenda.

“I’m a special ed teacher, I’m gay and I was born in Mexico,” Gutierrez said. “It felt like for the last five years — that’s how long Trump became relevant — he just used people like me as a scapegoat for his agenda.”

On Wednesday, Gutierrez, 41, took the day off from work and wrapped his arms around his husband and cried as they watched Joe Biden get sworn in as president from their South Loop living room.

“So surreal,” Gutierrez said as he stood in front of the television.

Soon Gutierrez and his husband, Matt Schreck, celebrated by standing on their balcony, waiving rainbow American and Mexican flags while blasting Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.”

“Relieved,” Gutierrez said after the inauguration. “Because there are so many people in the communities I interact with that won’t be a scapegoat anymore for the president of the United States.”

After four years of hard-line immigration policies, some immigrants like Gutierrez are hopeful the new Biden administration will bring relief to these communities. Biden walks into the White House promising to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. In Illinois, that could alter the lives of the estimated 437,000 undocumented immigrants living in the state, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

Advocates see Biden’s inauguration as a critical moment for immigration reform after years of failed attempts, said Dulce Ortiz, the executive director of Mano a Mano Family Resource Center, which provides services to immigrant communities in suburban Lake and McHenry counties. Ortiz said organizations plan to push for as many people to be included in the relief, hoping to end the narrative that only “good” immigrants should obtain legal status.

“We need to do away with those types of frameworks,” Ortiz said. “It does leave several of our brothers and sisters behind. We have individuals who have been here 20-plus years and don’t have a pathway for citizenship. Maybe they did make mistakes; they should not be punished for the rest of their lives.”

Gutierrez came to the U.S. from Mexico in his 20s after his father was able to obtain amnesty in the 1980s. He became a U.S. citizen about a month after Trump’s inauguration and voted in a presidential election for the first time last year.

He also would like Biden to tackle immigration reform, thinking not just of his family but of the families in Back of the Yards where he works.

“I know there are a lot of families who are very hopeful because they will have a chance to have a normal life instead of being targeted,” Gutierrez said.

He will also be looking at Biden to increase access to vaccinations especially because he’s expected to return to his classroom next month. And as someone in the LGBTQ community, Gutierrez said he’s concerned about what appears to be more ramped up discrimination after years of progress.

“It was very scary for us that [Trump] would win again,” Gutierrez said, who was one of the same-sex couples married in Milwaukee in 2014.

Ali Sharifi Tarokh, 35, of West Ridge, felt so insecure about his accent and name during the Trump era that he changed his name when he became a naturalized citizen. Tarokh, a refugee from Iran who arrived in the U.S. in 2012, was able to vote for president for the first time last year.

And while he didn’t experience any harassment, the fear of being questioned because of his identity stayed with him, especially when he traveled outside of Chicago.

“[Trump] reminded us that the shadow of fascism is always close to us,” he said. “And we have to watch our democracy every day.”

He had goose bumps Wednesday morning just thinking about the inauguration and the change in leadership. He watched the ceremony from his job and felt a sigh of relief.

“It was great to see some dignity to our nation,” he said.

While Ortiz and other advocates plan to hold the Biden administration accountable for promises made to immigrant communities, she felt hopeful while watching the ceremony from work. It was a sharp contrast to the devastation she felt four years ago.

“Today, it was like a moment where I could finally breathe,” she said.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.