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Monday night, the “UndocuBus,” with dozens of monarch butterflies painted on its side, sat in a parking lot in front of Skandalos, a Mexican restaurant/performance venue on the outskirts of Charlotte, displaying its slogan to any late-night passersby: “No Papers, No Fear.” Inside the club, Los Jornaleros del Norte (Day Laborers of the North) played cumbia tunes to the undocumented immigrants who have been traveling the country on the bus. Los Jornaleros are aptly named. The band members met on a street corner where they waited to be picked up and employed for the day, and started playing instruments together as a way to pass the time.
Standing on a corner waiting for work has become much more dangerous in the age of Arizona’s SB 1070 “Papers Please” immigration law, and its legislative cousins throughout the country. What recourse do the country’s 117,000 day laborers have against harassment, brutality and wage theft?
Letty, one of those UndocuBus riders in attendance at Skandalos, knows the risks all too well, residing in Phoenix, Arizona, the epicenter of anti-immigrant fervor. Maricopa County, where Phoenix sits, is under the jurisdiction of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Letty has been living in Phoenix since her parents brought her there from Mexico, when she was nine years old.
Letty herself has a nine‑, a seven‑, and a five-year old, and says she doesn’t want them to grow up “with Arpaios on their back.” So she decided to take her everyday risk public, “come out of the shadows” and team up with other undocumented immigrants to walk voluntarily into Arpaio’s office and ask to be arrested. Since this episode, Letty has joined the No Papers, No Fear bus.
“I was pulled over before SB1070,” Letty says. “It’s hard when the police ask you for a license and you don’t have nothing to say.” When she got arrested at Sheriff Arpaio’s office, “one of the officers told me that I had a driver’s suspension. I asked him: ‘How can I have a driver’s suspension, if I don’t even have a license?’”
As it turns out, there may be greater risk in staying silent than in coming out of the closet as undocumented. Time after time, the No Fear activists have engaged in acts of civil disobedience, only to find that those in power are reluctant to wield the law severely without the benefit of faceless and silent victims. It is when an undocumented immigrant, living in the shadows, is pulled over for a crime such as a broken tail light that the risk for deportation is most severe.
So says Kemi, another bus rider also in attendance at the restaurant. “When we purposefully risk it, that’s when we’re let go,” she says. “That to us is not fair, because all of us take that risk on a daily basis.” With a laugh, she adds, “at the end of the day, we can’t even get arrested properly.” (That turned out to be only partly true: The very next afternoon, 10 Undocubus activists were arrested outside the DNC for civil disobedience. All 10 were released the next day.)
Kemi, who was brought to Houston from Nigeria at age 6, didn’t know she was undocumented until applying for college. Printing out the applications, “I noticed the third question was, ‘Are you a U.S. citizen, are you a permanent resident, or are you an international student?’ They were all check boxes, and there was no fourth box, no Other, no Miscellaneous.”
Kemi then experienced a transition from feeling as though she was “illegal” to feeling as though she was a “dreamer,” one of those undocumented immigrants who came to the United States young enough to benefit from the prospective “DREAM Act.” But Kemi says she has undergone yet another transition, to “undocumented.” She objects to “dreamer” because, though it was once “the only thing I had to embrace,” she now finds that it “pins all of our experience on one piece of legislation, and that piece of legislation doesn’t define me.”
President Barack Obama, a public supporter of the DREAM Act, found himself in an uncomfortable situation earlier this summer when several of his campaign offices around the country were targeted for sit-ins by undocumented youth. The campaign employees couldn’t keep working with them there, but couldn’t, because of the President’s position, very well call the police and have the protesters deported, so they turned the lights off, locked the doors and left. Shortly after, Obama, who brags that he has deported more immigrants than any previous president, announced a Deferred Action Immigration Program, which would grant visas to youth such as those sitting-in at his campaign offices.
This complicated record on immigration is what drew the UndocuBus to Charlotte for the Democratic National Convention; the group skipped the RNC, knowing that Mitt Romney’s distinctly cruel immigration proposals left very little room for pressure or negotiation. President Obama’s legacy on this matter, say the undocumented activists, isn’t decided, but theirs is: they will fight until victory.
Buoying their optimism is the demographic shift currently underway in the United States, the so-called “browning of America.” The descendants of undocumented immigrants will constitute a large group of future voters, and are not likely to forget the treatment their parents are receiving now.
“My kids are with me,” says Letty. “I know that I’m raising them the good way, so that they can defend themselves and the community. My daughter, she’s five, and she says that she wants to help the community and do what I’m doing, and it makes me proud.”
Watch the UndocuBus arrive in Charlotte in this Nation video:
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