Undocumented Immigrants Ride Through South, Headed For a DNC Coming Out

Aug 07, 2012

Party conventions always attract more than just delegates. Although this year’s Democratic National Convention (DNC) will have its share of fans, onlookers, and protestors, one particular group will hold a historic presence when they arrive next month. That’s because the workers, students, mothers and fathers who are participating in a new kind of Freedom Ride are all undocumented immigrants.

UndocuBus is transporting about 30 people across 10 states this summer, as it approaches Charlotte, N.C., for the DNC. It’s making stops on the way to pick up new riders, and to meet with supporters. Whatever happens at the convention will depend on how federal immigration authorities–as well as the DNC itself–responds to the riders’ presence.

Getting on UndocuBus in Phoenix, Ariz., was no easy task for the riders. The city is home to Sheriff Joe Arpaio, and members boarded an old single deck bus that was repurposed and painted bright mint green with the words "No Papers No Fear" in English and Spanish on both sides. The bus will travel through states like Alabama, which has what’s considered the nation’s most draconian SB 1070-style law.

At Voting Rights Watch, we’re engaging community journalists as our eyes and ears on the ground. Early on, we decided the term "citizen journalist" would imply that only people born in the United States or naturalized through a process could weigh in this electoral season. Instead, we want to feature the voices of community journalists who may be undocumented and cannot vote, yet still have a stake in the electoral process.

Meet Eleazar Castellanos. He’s a 45-year-old day laborer who has lived in Tucson, Ariz., for 16 years with his wife and child. For the bulk of that time, he worked creating custom marble and granite countertops. About four years ago, he found that he was unable to hold a steady job because of Arizona’s use of E-Verify, which checks federal employment eligibility, and essentially bars unauthorized immigrants from obtaining work. About one year ago, he heard about the Southside Worker Center, and began realizing that many other people faced similar circumstances. Although he doesn’t find work everyday, he has found a community that reflects and honors his experience. When he heard about the tour, called No Papers No Fear Ride for Justice, he decided to participate. I spoke with him this week.

Why did you to want to board UndocuBus and publicly declare yourself undocumented?
Because I believe that I am not the only one in this situation. There are thousands upon thousands of us in the same circumstance. And not all of us have realized that we are not alone. And when I began going to the day labor center, I opened my eyes. I realized that we have to come out and struggle. I don’t want to stay in the shadows, I want to come out to the light, so people know that I’m here, and the problems that I’ve faced. Just because I’m undocumented doesn’t mean that I’m a criminal–because that’s what they try to make of me in Arizona, they catalog me as a criminal. But how can I be a criminal when I’ve been working and paying my taxes the entire time? So, in order for us to be heard, someone has to come forward. When they explained all the risks about boarding, I told them I wasn’t the one best suited for it. All of us were afraid; I was really afraid. But when we saw so much support, I chose to move forward. I have to speak–and not just for myself, but for everyone at once. Someone has to represent Tucson, someone has to represent Southside Worker Center, and ask for an opportunity for my wife, for my daughter, for my brothers, and for everyone to move forward. And that’s why I joined.

A lot of people might be surprised that you’re not only publicly claiming your undocumented status, but that you’re headed to the DNC, despite the fact you cannot vote. Why did you think it would be important for you to show up at the convention?
Because the elections are coming. And the Democrats have helped us–even if it’s been in a very limited way. But at the same time, it’s a way to let them know that there are so many of us. But getting to the DNC isn’t just about reaching the Democratic delegates. We’re making this public so that everyone can pay attention to the crisis we’re facing: the pain, the sacrifice, and the humiliation. I don’t know if you would consider it humiliating to have to search in the trash to find money or food with which to feed your family. But that’s what some of us have to go through because of E-Verify. That’s why we’re going to the DNC, why we’re letting people know about us on the way, and why I’m hoping that more people like me will join us. There are so many of us. Just a few years ago, there were 12 million undocumented immigrants. In that time, a lot of us have self-deported, but let’s not turn back without a fight. If we don’t gain anything out our struggle, that’s fine–but at least we can say we put up a fight.

Obama recently announced a deferred action for undocumented students, and some one million young people to apply for a two-year work permit next week. What do you think about that?
It wasn’t nearly enough. It’s possible that during those two years, those young people will be fine. But 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. They will be easy to locate and arrest–and while they’re at it, they might arrest everyone inside the home. And if someone comes forward with an idea that the deferred action was a bad idea, those young people could be in jeopardy. Maybe they should hold off until a real change happens, before applying. That’s why I say Obama’s deferred action was not enough.

Undocumented students were unrelenting in their demands, and although, as you pointed out, the deferred action comes with serious flaws, it’s the first significant change to immigration policy in decades. Do you think that UndocuBus may have a similar impact, but one that effects all undocumented immigrants, not just students?
We’re not trying to put pressure on the DNC–we just want them to know what’s happening. The undocumented students deserved a lot more, so I don’t know if we can expect a significant policy change for the rest of us. But we want everyone to know that we’re here, that we’re worth something. That we’re people, we’re not animals. We’re not like the horse that you use for its labor, and once it’s old, you send it back to the fields to die out of sight. I love this country, but that’s not how I want to be seen, and that’s not how I want to be treated.