Ten undocumented immigrants were arrested on Tuesday afternoon outside the Democratic National Convention, amid chants of “Undocumented, unafraid!” and “No papers, no fear!”
Around 3:30pm, several dozen activists marched to the corner of East 5th and College Street in Charlotte, North Carolina, just blocks from where the DNC was being held, and blocked the intersection to protest President Obama’s deportation policy. They unfurled a banner that read “Sin Papeles, Sin Miedo” (“no papers, no fear”) laid it on the street, and began chanting, singing and telling their stories. Within the hour, 10 undocumented people were taken into police custody. They were released Wednesday morning with a charge of impeding traffic, a misdemeanor. An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official was contacted about the case, but decided not to pursue steps toward deportation.
The No Papers, No Fear tour – known on social media as the UnDocuBus – has been traveling throughout the South and Southwestern United States to bring awareness to the terror that undocumented people live with every day. States like Arizona and villains like Sheriff Joe Arpaio have gained notoriety for their brutal treatment of immigrants, but much of the tour’s focus has been on President Obama and his yet unfinished legacy on deportation.
“They were arrested blocks away from the DNC,” Tania Unzueta, the press coordinator for the group, said, describing the day’s action. “They were asking the president which side he will be on. If he will be on the side of history where he is remembered as the president who has deported the most people in U.S. history, or if he’ll be on the side of history where we’ll remember him as a friend of immigrants who recognizes our dignity.”
Unzueta, 28, who is undocumented, was arrested in Washington, DC, at an action earlier this year pressuring President Obama to pass the DREAM Act. The DREAM Act, which has not been signed into law, has four basic requirements that, if met, allow undocumented children to gain full citizenship, according to DreamActivist.org: 1) that you entered the country before age 16; 2) you graduate from high school or get a GED; 3) have no criminal record; and 4) have at least five years of continuous presence in the U.S.
On Tuesday, Unzueta’s mother, father and younger sister were arrested in the planned civil disobedience.
“I’m worried about their immediate well-being,” Unzueta told me late Tuesday evening. “They’re together, and that helps. I also know they were mentally prepared to go through this, and that helps as well, but now the question is, what do we need to do to make sure they do get out?”
Another mother and daughter were arrested Tuesday afternoon as well. As they were led to the police van, the daughter, a young woman in her mid-20s, shouted, “Organize!” She beamed as she shouted to the crowd to pressure Obama to stop his record pace of deportations, her mother, also handcuffed, just a few feet in front of her. Despite the many arrests that have occurred related to the No Papers, No Fear campaign, none have resulted in deportation. Tania Unzueta and others say that getting arrested deliberately, with the community ready to take action, is safer than an anonymous arrest – a threat undocumented immigrants face on a daily basis.
“We want to stop deportations,” Isela Meraz said shortly after the arrests. “We want them to stop separation of families, collaboration between Immigration and Customs Enforcement and police.”
Section 287(g), enacted in 1996 but largely unimplemented until after 9/11, “allows the federal government to enter into agreements with state and local law enforcement agencies, allowing them to deputize local officials to enforce federal immigration law,” according to a report by the National Council of La Raza. The Obama administration took the enforcement one step further with a program known as Secure Communities, whose goal ostensibly was to target and deport the most dangerous criminals. Many activists think this program has led to an increase in racial profiling and demonizing jailed undocumented immigrants, regardless of the specifics of their cases.
The president’s executive order to defer action for those who would qualify for the DREAM Act was seen as a major victory, one that many on the UnDocuBus organized and went to jail for, but they say the next step is opening the same avenues to the parents who are excluded from the DREAM Act. And one potential negative consequence of the act is that it could actually increase the number of adults who are deported, if the Obama administration wants to keep its numbers high.
The language of “no papers, no fear,” not only accurately depicts the determination of the activists on the tour, but it also serves as a way to expunge the fear they live with on a daily basis. “I was tired of being in the shadows,” Leticia Ramirez said, describing her decision to come out as undocumented. Ramirez, who was born in Mexico, lives in Arizona. “One of my friends from elementary [school] didn’t know I [didn’t have papers]. And I told her, yeah, I’m undocumented, and it’s been hard for me to be undocumented for 18 years. And then I never heard from her again.”
Kemi Bello, who is Nigerian-born, moved to Houston with her family when she was in second grade. “For me, things didn’t really change until high school,” when she began apply for college. The applications had check boxes for US citizens, permanent resident or international student. “There was no fourth checkbox for ‘other.'”
Once an arrest happens, the UnDocuBus people begin engaging the community by calling the local precincts, gathering signatures and getting their message out through traditional and social media. In this case, ICE didn’t pursue deportation, giving more evidence to the activists’ argument that their strategies are working.
“We’ve done everything,” said Nattaly Cruz. “We’ve marched, we’ve talked, we’ve had hunger strikes. What else do we have to do to let the president know that we don’t want any more families separated?”