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Freedom From Fear Awards: 'Coming Out' As Undocumented (VIDEO)

Freedom From Fear Award

First Posted: 06/18/11 04:28 PM ET Updated: 08/18/11 06:12 AM ET

MINNEAPOLIS -- Fifteen individuals and groups will be awarded $5,000 cash prizes at progressive conference Netroots Nation on Saturday evening, praising them for putting aside fear to push for changes in immigration enforcement and law.

The idea of the Freedom From Fear Awards was to honor men and women who had shown courage in standing up to immigration laws, said Michele Lord of the Public Interest Project, which came up with the prize. The group dug through 380 nominations. Some came from the other side of the aisle, such as a nomination for Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), who has pushed for tougher immigration enforcement. (He was not chosen.) One Republican, Utah businesswoman Antonella Packard, will get an award for her work with Bosnian Muslim immigrant communities and advocacy for the DREAM Act, which would give undocumented youths who graduate from college in the United States or serve in the U.S. military a pathway to citizenship.

Several of the awards will be given to young men and women, many of them undocumented, who have engaged in activism for immigration reform at the state and national level. They said "freedom from fear" meant standing up for what they believed in -- even if it meant risking deportation, violence or arrest -- by "coming out" as undocumented or speaking against injustices.

"As undocumented youth we are in a privileged position because we have a good image and a good story," said Tania Unzueta, who was arrested in July 2010 during a sit-in of Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) office in Washington, D.C. "I think what we've tried to do is use our image as students to also say, 'Look, we're still in deportation proceedings and in threat of deportation and getting arrested and criminalized.' For me it's always been about highlighting this contradiction."

Unzueta, Rigo Padilla and Reyna Wences, undergrad and graduate students at the University of Illinois-Chicago, will get one award for their work as founders of the Immigrant Youth Justice League.

The three students, along with others, engaged in protests in support of the DREAM Act in 2010, traveling to Arizona and the District of Columbia. In some ways, their statuses as undocumented students came in handy, allowing them to earn more sympathy than other undocumented people, they said.

Wences stressed that it is important for undocumented people to speak out so others do not feel alone. The student said that she struggled with depression and attempted suicide before "coming out" as undocumented, and therefore feels it is important to share her story.

"For me coming out is about taking ownership of that day," Wences said. "Now every time that I come out it's like me fighting that fear. ... Coming out means that you exist.

Another group of students who will receive the award -- Gaby Pacheco, Felipe Matos, Juan Rodriquez and Carlos Roa -- also proudly wore the label of "undocumented," this time while walking from Miami to the nation's capital, to draw support for the DREAM Act. Of the three, only Rodriquez is a legal permanent resident; the other three are undocumented. (See below for a video about their trip below.)

"People who aren't undocumented can be allies to a movement that highlights the struggles of undocumented people," said Rodriguez, who was undocumented until 2009. "It's being able to understand the privilege they have and creating a space for those other individuals who face the worst abuses and need to be protected."

Another person who will be on hand to accept the award is retired Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris, who said he admired the courage of his fellow winners. Harris was pushed out of his job after taking a hard stance against Arizona's anti-immigrant law, SB 1070, which was challenged by the Obama Justice Department last year.

"If you get right down to all of the other recipients, they really did the same thing I did," he said. "These folks are all standing up for what they believe in."

He said for him, being "free from fear" is about sticking to his principles.

"Every day, I have to get up and shave and look in the mirror, and I don't want to be ashamed of what's looking back at me," Harris said. "Money, prestige, jobs, are meaningless. What's important for me is to feel that what I've done is right."

WATCH: Four students who will receive the Freedom from Fear Award Saturday night, walked last year from Miami to Washington, D.C., in what they they called a "Trail of Dreams." The purpose? Coming out as undocumented immigrants on the national level in support of the DREAM Act.

CORRECTION, June 24: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Rep. Peter King was nominated for the award; it was actually Rep. Steve King.

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