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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – A group of self-outed undocumented immigrants emerged from the shadows to embark on a cross-country trip on July 29, from Phoenix, Ariz. to next month’s Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C..
The group, known as the “Undocubus,” hopes to raise public awareness of the plight of living in what they call an atmosphere of fear and oppression.
In the spirit of the "occupy" movement, the “No Papers! No Fear! Ride for Justice” is a grassroots organization that has no definitive action plan yet, other than to raise awareness.
"We're sharing our stories about being undocumented and addressing local policies that are targeting undocumented immigrants," said Tania Unzueta, who is originally from Mexico City and now lives in Illinois. “We want to be able to show in a very public way the power of undocumented people traveling across the country and organizing.”
Uzueta hopes the ride, which started with 10 in Phoenix and another 17 joining in Albuquerque, will gain momentum as they travel across the south to the Democratic National Convention planned for Sept. 4.
We're sharing our stories about being undocumented and addressing local policies that are targeting undocumented immigrants.
Unzueta says the plan for when they arrive in Charlotte is still evolving. She said they will discuss with convention attendees the morality of current legislation along with the need for immigration reform and a path towards citizenship for those already in the country illegally.
The activists hope to get the ear of a legislator at the convention where immigration is likely to be a topic of discussion.
“We really don’t know what we’re going to do yet but there is the potential for civil disobedience,” Unzueta said. “We want to make a statement, but we’re not sure how it will play out. A lot depends on the response from the Democratic Party and the Department of Homeland Security.
The protesters take inspiration from books once used in the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican-American Studies program, which was dismantled after a judge deemed it illegal in December 2011.
“We even have our own underground library,” Unzueta said. “It’s like our books are even being profiled.”
Members of the group have demonstrated they are willing to resort to civil disobedience regardless of the consequences.
On July 24, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) placed immigration detainers on four people who were arrested during a protest outside the federal courthouse in Phoenix during the trial of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. (Arpaio faces a civil suit alleging that his office racially profiles Latinos and has usurped federal authority over immigration enforcement.)
ICE interviewed the four individuals and determined that three of them did not fall under ICE’s enforcement priorities, spurring the agency to lift the detainers. The fourth person, who was taken to the ICE field office for further screening, was issued a notice to appear before an immigration judge and released.
So when the initial group of 10 riders chose Phoenix as their departure point, the symbolism was inescapable.
“Arizona is one of the battle grounds for immigration legislation in terms of what’s happening locally and with the federal government,” Unzueta said. “It’s a place where we see both the clash of the policy that criminalizes immigrants and the resistance of those from the community.”
Fellow rider Fernando Lopez, who lives in Arizona but is originally from the Mexican state of Michoacán, is currently embroiled in deportation proceedings after being pulled over in a traffic stop in June 2011.
“This is not against the U.S., we want to stay here,” he said. “We’re not flaunting lawlessness.”
Not everyone sees it that way, however. The Federation for American Immigration Reform sees the Undocubus as a flaunting of lawlessness
Bob Danes of the Federation for American Immigration Reform said the Obama administration's decision to implement discretionary immigration enforcement guidelines sent the undocumented immigrants on the trip the message that they will not be arrested.
"This sends a very empowering message that violating immigration laws is inconsequential," Danes said.
Lopez said the Ride for Justice is an attempt to show others that it is possible to organize and not get deported.
Arpaio, one of the fiercest critics of what he calls the federal inaction on illegal immigration, says undocumented immigrants currently aren’t sought out for deportation unless they commit a crime, as was the case of the four demonstrators at his trial who were arrested on criminal charges associated with their demonstration and not their immigration status.
He said the participants in the Ride for Justice were immune from his deputies handing them over to ICE.
“If I walked on the bus and they said to me we’re all undocumented what are you going to do about it, I couldn’t do anything unless they committed a crime,” Arpaio said. “It’s sad there is misrepresentation of what we are doing by activists and even government officials.”
ICE maintains a similar position, assuaging some of the concerns of the riders of constantly looking over their shoulders.
“ICE is focused on smart, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens, recent border crossers and egregious immigration law violators, such as those who have been previously removed from the United States,” said Amber Cargile, Public Affairs Officer for the Phoenix ICE office of the agency’s new prosecutorial discretion directive.
This new attitude may fuel the rider’s defiance and bring others out to join them.
“The more we talk about being undocumented the more we think that it’s actually safer to be out of the shadows and out in public,” Unzueta said. “We know we are being very open about being undocumented and part of the tension is whether they are going to detain a group of undocumented immigrants who are organizing.”
After a demonstration in Phoenix on July 29 against Arizona’s SB-1070—with no arrests—the group headed to Denver where they protested against Colorado’s SB-90.
Immigrant advocates say both bills entangle local police in federal immigration enforcement, leading to racial profiling, violations of civil rights, and loss of trust in law enforcement.
Published reports compare the Ride for Justice with the Freedom Riders of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.
But Unzueta was quick to downplay the comparison.
“They were being beaten and killed, we only have to worry about detention and possible deportation,” Unzueta said. “But we do get inspiration from what they did.”