Why the UndocuBus Riders Are More Patriotic than the Rest of Us


Cindy Casares Portrait

A version of this story ran in the September 2012 issue.

On July 29, a bus full of undocumented immigrants calling themselves UndocuBus began a journey from Phoenix, Arizona, to Charlotte, North Carolina, to raise awareness about immigration reform and, ultimately, to protest against President Obama at the Democratic National Convention in September. You might be surprised to hear that, since Obama just made a big speech about how his administration will no longer deport qualified undocumented immigrants under age 30. Unfortunately, like many of the president’s well-publicized immigration decrees, this one doesn’t exactly match up with his record.

In July, one month after Obama’s speech from the White House Rose Garden, 26-year-old undocumented immigrant Viridiana Martinez turned herself in at Broward Transitional Center in Pompano Beach, Florida, to document U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) failure to comply with the new Deferred Action Process for Young People Who Are Low Enforcement Priorities, published by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano on June 15, 2012, and marked “effective immediately.” From inside Broward, Martinez reported to Democracy Now! and the National Immigrant Youth Alliance the presence of more than 60 detainees without criminal records, another three dozen eligible to request that discretion be applied in their cases, and several immigrants requiring medical attention. Now, remember, the Deferred Action Process came after another highly publicized Obama directive, issued in June 2011, ordering ICE officials to “refrain from pursuing non-citizens with close family, educational, military, or other ties in the U.S. and instead spend the agency’s limited resources on persons who pose a serious threat to public safety or national security.” If the president’s directives aren’t completely ineffectual, why has he had to make two?

In August, as UndocuBus rolled through Austin, certain Texas Democratic groups tried to convince the protestors not to go to Charlotte. The critics weren’t willing to go on record, but suffice it to say the complaints were made to activists who were closest to the UndocuBus as it came through the state.

I experienced the same blind loyalty to the Democratic Party from Texas Observer readers who came out to defend the president on Facebook last month when my story about his pandering to the Latino vote was published. Despite having the worst deportation record of any American president, President Obama enjoys a 70-percent approval rating among Latino voters. This is probably because those voters, by definition, are documented. At the end of the day, if it’s not your problem, it’s tough to do more than keep up with an issue through the headlines. And the president’s administration does a great job of making the headlines read like he’s really got your back.

“The Democrats have helped us—even if it’s been in a very limited way,” Eleazar Castellanos, a 45-year-old day laborer and UndocuBus rider, told daily news site Colorlines. But he doesn’t believe that Obama’s policy, which allows young undocumented immigrants to apply for “deferred action” to avoid deportation, is nearly enough. “What if, during that time, someone has a radical idea to change the deferred action? They would have a new database of young people who applied, with their names and addresses. … Maybe they should hold off until a real change happens, before applying. That’s why I say Obama’s deferred action was not enough.”

Latino immigrants are only the latest in a long line of immigrant groups given the worst jobs for the lowest pay in America. That the majority of people in previous immigrant groups came here legally proves that they weren’t mistreated for breaking the law. They were treated like second-class citizens because they were different. Make no mistake: that’s the same reason undocumented immigrants are mistreated today. If you care about stopping bigotry and discrimination, you should care how immigrants are treated.

The issue of immigration reform not only affects the lives of undocumented people, it sets the tone for how all Latinos are viewed in this country. While many Latinos aren’t willing to vote for Republicans because that party has aligned itself so closely with whites openly hostile to them, Latinos could decide to vote for no one, concluding that neither party has their interests at heart. This would be damaging to the Democrats. Ergo, someone better start making immigration reform a priority.

In the meantime, it’s the UndocuBus riders who have the courage to risk everything for their convictions.