How a Bus Full of Undocumented Families Could Change the Immigration Debate
Most of the buses that depart from the downtown Phoenix Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office toward the border between the United States and Mexico leave broken dreams and separated families in their wake. But this summer a different type of bus departed from that same city to promote a new ending to that story.
The “UndocuBus,” as it came to be called, set off to carry dignity rather than despair and to show that the only secure community is an organized one. Riders publicly declared themselves undocumented and shared their stories. This challenged the strategy of attrition through enforcement promoted by anti-immigrant groups.
The No Papers No Fear Ride for Justice traveled thousands of miles, starting in Arizona and crossing the southern part of the United States towards Charlotte, N.C. Along the way, 35 riders active in community organizations traveled through areas where both state-based anti-immigrant laws and a federal deportation program known as Secure Communities have quickly spread.
Since 2001, a dangerous trend has been expanding—one that conflates immigration status with criminality and conscripts police to act as enforcers of federal civil immigration laws. This has resulted in nearly 400,000 deportations a year in both 2010 and 2011, a polarized nation that depends on the labor of a people it does not accept, and millions of people living in constant uncertainty while striving for a better life for themselves and their families. Any encounter with local police can lead to deportation, and by boarding a bus and declaring their immigration status, riders were taking a significant risk to tell their story.
In so doing they overcame their fear and found courage on the other side, with a newfound hope in what had seemed like only growing shadows.
Mile markers for the movement: timing, targets, tactics
A tender exchange amid so much uncertainty: Beatriz gives her mother a kiss goodbye, Leticia holds her little hands and whispers reassuring words that she will see her soon. Leticia was sitting on the street at that moment, one of the four undocumented Arizonans who decided to be arrested in civil disobedience outside a federal courthouse where Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio stood trial.
Leticia, Isela, Natally, and Miguel’s action set off the bus tour and signaled a new phase of resistance to Arizona’s immigration policies.
The fate of the No Papers No Fear bus tour always hinged on the willingness of undocumented families, students, and workers to take the risk of boarding the bus, to tell their story, and to engage in civil disobedience. They came from Tucson, Phoenix, Chicago, Detroit, Houston, Memphis, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, Ashville, Knoxville, and Atlanta.
At sixteen stops along the route, riders sought to engage two primary groups. One was the members of the undocumented community, whom riders urged to come out of the shadows and organize during exchange, education, and cultural events. The second was local police and elected officials, whom riders tried to reach through delegation visits and direct actions.
One example of this took place in Jackson County, N.C. Sheriff Jimmy Ashe regularly sets up vehicle checkpoints with ICE in front of Latino businesses and neighborhoods. He has refused to meet with advocates and many in the community fear reprisal if they come forward. In solidarity, riders visited the sheriff and asked for a meeting. Riders asked one by one, called, and picketed, but he would not come out. In the end, a press conference was held in the lobby of his precinct. But this time local residents stepped forward and shared their testimony on the sheriff’s actions.
With nearly half a million people being deported every year, migrant communities cannot wait for relief. As power of the Latino electorate grows, the Democratic Convention—the bus’s final destination—served as a stage to send a direct message to President Obama.
The primary question posed to the president by the Latino community has been related to his promise to pass immigration reform. But pushing the president on legislation whose success or failure is actually the responsibility of Congress is like a slow pitch over home plate: Obama can both champion and deflect it without concrete results.
However, the Department of Homeland Security and ICE are under the president’s command and operate under his authority. As he nears his second term, the more fitting question is this: Will President Obama’s legacy be the highest number of deportations in history, or will his administration change course?
Out of the shadows, into organized communities
The No Papers No Fear Ride for Justice did not seek to advance any specific policy goal. The objective was to shift the frame of the debate away from an enforcement-only approach and toward inclusion.
The strategy was to extend the act of “coming out of the shadows” to non-DREAM Act eligible adults, challenge the story of criminalization, pose a dilemma for decision-makers through direct action, and make space for the voices of directly affected people in a movement accustomed to advocates who are not directly affected.
If the reaction of the local police and ICE was arrest and detention, it demonstrated the contradiction between an administration that claims to use discretion and an agency (ICE) that uses a dragnet. If that was not the outcome, it would reaffirm the precedent set by undocumented youth that there is protection and strength in coming out as undocumented.
In the end, it wasn’t true that there was no fear. Bravery is not the absence of fear; it’s the willingness to act despite it. And that willingness was powered by organization. Over and over, riders expressed their readiness to risks that could result in separation from their families and the loss of many years of hard work, paired with their deep faith in their community’s strength and ability to rally in their defense.
It would be a setback if this effort were seen only as some spontaneous outburst or isolated individual acts. The journey was an effort woven together by a network of community and youth organizations, community defense committees, and faith-based organizations. It emerged from and in turn supported the ongoing efforts of these groups to battle local versions of Sheriff Joe Arpaio cropping up their own backyards.
We vanquish our fear when we realize we are not alone in what we face. We are undeterred by risk when we see we are not alone in wanting to change it. Being informed and supported provides a backbone for us each to lift our heads and reclaim our dignity. By organizing and creating the mutual support systems based in community, this will not end with the group who boarded the UndocuBus. The victory is in the multiplying of these actions, the echo of the stories told, and the potential that each one of us holds to transform this debate into a dialogue, from exclusion to inclusion.
Charlotte, N.C., was the last stop for the summer tour, but its work does not end there. To stave off an Arizonafication of the entire country, the migrant-rights movement needs new voices and methods to build power.
The stage is set for those who heard the cry of “No Papers No Fear” to step out and repeat those words. Riders are volunteering to travel and help with organizing efforts in new places. And many are starting to propose a new tour, perhaps with caravans coming from many different directions and with participants from this summer stepping in as organizers.
On the eve of President Obama’s speech at the DNC, riders sat together one last time on Priscila the bus. In between tears and laughs, everyone spoke about what this moment meant for them.
“I always remember this time someone told me that I was good for nothing,” said Maricruz, a mother of three, who rode the entire way and participated in civil disobedience in Charlotte. “If I saw them today, I feel like I can finally respond and say ‘I am worth something. And I have so much to give.’”
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