On the evening of Wednesday, August 15, the Democratic National Convention made history by inviting an undocumented immigrant to address the delegacy. Benita Veliz told the crowd how she came to the U.S. as a young child but lived with the knowledge that she could be deported at any time—until June 2012, when President Obama signed the DREAM Act, an executive order granting temporary residency status to thousands of children of immigrants. She praised Obama for his support of the Act, saying: “President Obama has fought for my community.”
But just the previous day, a few blocks outside the convention center, a group of undocumented immigrants had used their bodies and voices to draw attention to what they say is Obama’s flawed and unjust immigration record. That record includes about 1.1 million deportations, more than any other president since the 1950s.
The ten arrestees and dozens of others have been riding around the country since late July, encouraging President Obama to decide what he wants his immigration legacy to look like. They call their project the “Undocubus,” and they travel in a bus painted a bright greenish-blue, and decorated huge images of the monarch butterfly, a migratory species the riders have adopted as their symbol.
The ride has functioned as both outreach and direct action, connecting the riders with other communities and providing opportunities for risky but highly visible actions, such as a July sit-in at the office of anti-immigrant Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Phoeniz, Arizona, which resulted in four arrests of undocumented individuals. The riders take a calculated risk, facing possible deportation but hoping that their courage will draw attention to their cause.
“We're willing to take the risk for a change,” Natalie Cruz, an undocumented rider from Phoenix, Arizona, said of the action. “We have to do anything to survive.”
At around 3:30 pm on Tuesday, riders from the UndocBus gathered on a sidewalk a few blocks from College Street, one of the main drags at the convention. They were men and women, young adults and middle-aged people, even children. They held cloth signs printed with monarch butterflies and the words “Migration is a Human Right.” After a quiet march in the rain to the corner of College and East 5th Street, the riders stepped into the center of the intersection, where they knelt on a colorful banner that read “Sin Papeles, Sin Miedo” (“No Papers, No Fear”) and held signs reading “Undocumented” above their heads.
Despite the rain, the riders created a proud and militant spectacle. As delegates from the Democratic National Convention passed the protest, leaving the CNN Grill or heading toward the Ritz Carlton, the riders shared their stories in both English and Spanish. Other riders around them chanted in support. They stayed put as police enclosed them with bicycles and the rain became heavier, a mother and daughter in the group kneeling with their arms around each other. After remaining in the street despite a bilingual dispersal order by the police, they were handcuffed one at a time and placed into police vans, where they continued to chant “Undocumented, unafraid!”
The civil disobedience in Charlotte was part of a series of direct actions meant to put pressure on Obama and draw attention to injustices of the current immigration policy. While the DREAM Act supports children of immigrants, the riders say that is only part of the picture. “People need the right to drive their children to school and not fear that they will be deported along the way,” said Tania Unzueta, whose mom, dad, and sister were arrested at the action. Many of those arrested were adults—parents and workers who spoke about their experience of constant fear and their desire to live out in the open.
The UndocuBus riders emphasize the importance of community support as a form of advocacy. Since undocumented individuals face arrest every day just by driving to the store or going to work, the stakes are already high. Acts of civil disobedience make such arrests more visible. When all ten arrestees were released the following morning without being processed by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the UndocuBus crew took it as another victory on their tour, tweeting, “We know this is not the norm, that every day [they] separate families.”
Despite 18 arrests of UndocuBus riders since their tour began, there have been no deportations. By making deportation both visible and political, they have put Obama and ICE in a difficult position; so far, these officials seem uninterested in deporting widely publicized civil rights activists before and during the convention.
As the DNC continues into its third day, the speakers made it clear that Obama plans to champion his immigration record, focusing specifically on young “Dreamers.” For the people on the UndocuBus, though, Obama’s policy still leaves many vulnerable to deportation and guarantees the continued separation of families.
On Tuesday, as Julian Castro became the first Latino to deliver a keynote address at the DNC, Unzueta’s family was still in jail. “Will he be the president who deported the most people in U.S. history,” she asked of Obama, “or will he recognize the dignity of people like us?”
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