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[Updated] Undocumented Immigrants Come Out of the Shadows, Take to the Road

Protesters Board 'Undocubus,' Head to Democratic National Convention
by Published on
Photos courtesy of No Papers, No Fear.

Update 8/3/12:

It was around midnight Friday when the Undocubus rolled into Austin. It was 12 hours late, but then driving across the country in a refurbished bus is never a sure bet. The bus, christened “Priscilla,” had three mechanical meltdowns on her way from Phoenix to Austin.

The activists riding on the bus had planned to meet with Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo before holding a protest outside the Travis County Sheriff’s Office. Despite the Undocubus’ no show, about 50 supporters from several organizations including the Workers’ Defense Project, Austin Immigrant Rights Coalition, University Leadership Initiative and Grassroots Leadership gathered in front of the sheriff’s office to protest the county’s use of Secure Communities and the highest rate of noncriminal deportations in the country. The protesters marched back and forth across a small stretch of sidewalk chanting in Spanish: “We’re not criminals, we’re not illegals, we’re international workers!”

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A few hours after the protest, some of the exhausted Undocubus riders finally arrived in Austin in a smaller bus and a Jeep while a mechanic attended to the exhausted Priscilla. A pachanga broke out at the building where the Workers’ Defense Project is housed that involved tamales, music and dancing. The party seemed to re-energize they group as they mingled and danced, waiting for the rest of their companions to arrive on the repaired Undocubus.

Julio Cesar Sanchez, who sums himself up as “undocumented and unafraid, queer and unapologetic” is one of the Undocubus riders who intends to complete the full voyage from Phoenix to Charlotte, while others will only participate in parts of the trip.

“The bus says, ‘No papers, no fear’ in Spanish on one side and in English on the other; we’ve tried to make a plan in case we get pulled over by the police or ICE, but we all know there’s the risk that we’ll get pulled over and arrested before getting to a city,” Sanchez says. “So that’s a little bit scary. Simply being on the bus, getting on the bus, is a huge job.”

But the riders aren’t stopping there, he says. In every city they visit, they try to engage with the community and educate other undocumented people about their rights. The group’s delay caused a change in plans, but Sanchez says they’re open to anything the community might invite them to do. On Friday night, that involved a well-deserved break, good food and a lot of dancing. Around midnight, the rest of his fellow riders finally made it to Austin with the Undocubus back in running order. Undeterred by their setbacks, they’ll head out for New Orleans Monday morning.

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Tired of government inaction and what they call “political football” in immigration reform, a busload of undocumented immigrants are risking arrest and deportation to push for change.

About 30 undocumented immigrants and their supporters boarded what they’ve dubbed the “Undocubus” Wednesday and rolled out of Phoenix, widely regarded as a battleground for immigrant rights. The Undocubus will pull into the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina in September.

Protesters are prepared to be arrested and/or deported as they cross the southern states on their way to deliver a message to President Obama. Spokesperson Tania Unzueta says attorneys volunteered to brief each rider on the risks involved in traveling on the bus. Each person’s assessment included previous criminal history, relationships with U.S. citizens and whether they were eligible for deferred action, among other factors. One of the riders, Gerardo Torres, says if anyone needs an attorney at any point in the trip, they will be represented.

Before they’d even boarded the bus a handful of them were arrested. In Phoenix some of the riders participated in a demonstration outside Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s trial. Before the trial, the group released a statement saying, “…We are no longer afraid. Today, we confront publicly what we risk every day, being arrested by the police, and separated from our families, only because we are undocumented. We’re confronting fear itself. We are undocumented and unafraid. We hope to inspire others in our own community to lose their fear, to come out of the shadows, and to organize.”

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Outside the trial, one of the protesters, Leticia Ramirez, said she was tired of the way her community is treated by the government in Arizona. Addressing Arpaio, she said, “I’m here to tell Arpaio that he’s been chasing our community, he’s been chasing our people and I’m here to tell him that I’m making his job easy – that I’m here, I’m not going to stand for what he’s doing to my community and come and get me!”

Ramirez, 27, was arrested along with three others and later released after spending the night in jail. One of the protesters was transferred to ICE and released two days after the protest. They are four of about 30 people riding the Undocubus, though Unzueta says others will jump on and off the bus at different stops as they make their way to see Obama in Charlotte.

The motto of the movement is “No papers, no fear,” a message painted on the side of the bus, printed on t-shirts, scribbled on signs and chanted during protests. The group posts updates on the ride and encourages participation on its website, nopapersnofear.org.

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The website features a blog, and members constantly update the group’s Facebook page with photos and videos. A video from the trial demonstration shows the protesters being handcuffed and escorted by police while holding their heads high and continuing to chant with the crowd.

Social media has played a key role in spreading the word about the Undocubus. The group launched its Facebook and Twitter accounts July 19, and by August 1st had 3,615 likes on Facebook and 524 followers on Twitter. Though the movement was born out of frustration and the desire for immigrant solidarity in Arizona, it has quickly grown and gained national support.

Gerardo Torres, a carpenter and handyman who has lived in Phoenix for more than 18 years, is part of the first group who departed Arizona Sunday.

“I decided to participate because I was tired of politicians in Arizona speaking for me and chasing the undocumented community in the state,” Torres says. “I have the power to speak for myself; I don’t need any politician or anyone else speaking for me. It’s time for me to express my opinions – I’m a member of the gay community and I want everyone to know that my community is also affected by these laws and the discrimination happening in Arizona.”

Torres also says one of the main goals of the tour is to educate and inform undocumented immigrants across the country of their rights.

“We want to show our community that they have resources to defend their rights; they can educate and defend themselves in case of arrest or harassment by local police. We are talking with members of the community in all the cities we’re stopping in, sharing our knowledge and our experience about what we’ve done to defend our community in Arizona.”

Though the route has not been made public, the Undocubus is set to go through New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee before stopping in North Carolina. The first stop was in Denver on Tuesday and the second stop will be in Austin on Friday, where they will demonstrate outside the Travis County Sheriff’s Office at noon.

In 2010, advocacy groups found that Travis County led the nation in the deportation of noncriminal immigrants because of its use of Secure Communities. Austin-based immigrant rights groups will join riders in demanding the Sheriff and Chief of Police reject the controversial deportation program.

Priscila Mosqueda is a contributing writer at the Observer, where she previously interned. She grew up in San Antonio and graduated with a bachelor's in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin in 2012. Her work has appeared in InsideClimate News, The Center for Public Integrity, The Daily Beast, and various Central Texas outlets.