“¿Dónde está la dignidad?” demands 21-year-old activist Fernando Lopez Sanchez in a spoken-word rap on the deportations, detentions, and raids that have defined the modern immigrant experience. Where is the dignity? That question is at the heart of a recent upsurge in immigrant rights activism, one that takes aim not just at recent controversial laws like Arizona’s SB 1070, but at a national system of ICE harassment, silent raids, and deportation programs like so-called “secure communities.” Policies like these, says Sanchez, who is himself undocumented, puts families and communities “constantly at risk, no matter where they are.”
But recently, within the immigrant rights movement, the demand for dignity has begun to reach fever pitch. And one of the most vibrant and courageous campaigns has been spearheaded by No Papers No Fear, an organization that aims to confront the pervasive fear and violence that have dominated the experience of immigrants in America for generations. In late July, Sanchez, along with dozens of other undocumented activists climbed aboard No Papers’ UnDocuBus and embarked on an eleven-state journey from Phoenix to the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. Refusing to remain in the shadows, the activists openly declared their status in places where immigrants are most vulnerable to persecution, like Arizona and Georgia. “I am going to get arrested because I am tired of living in fear,” No Papers No Fear activist Natally Cruz wrote from Phoenix. “We are coming out of our fear.”
In recent years, “coming out” statements like this have become more and more common. One of the most prominent was that of Jose Antonio Vargas, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist who declared his undocumented status in the summer of 2011, in the pages of the New York Times. Undocumented Dreamer activists have also “come out,” even as they engaged in rallies, hunger strikes, and sit-ins at Democratic Party offices to demand federal action on the DREAM Act, which failed to pass in 2011. President Obama’s executive order earlier this year, which offered temporary legal status to young immigrants meeting certain conditions was welcomed by some, but affected only a small fraction of the 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. today. Many activists wanted more.
Among them were Sanchez, Cruz, and other riders on the UnDocuBus. Unlike previous campaigns aimed squarely at the DREAM Act, No Papers No Fear has a deeper message about what a “secure community” really looks like. After Arizona passed SB 1070 in April 2010, immigrant neighborhoods across the state formed grassroots Barrio Defense Committees to legally and financially assist families facing deportation, report police abuse, and provide English classes and health care. Having grown out this activism, No Papers is now spreading the word. The UnDocuBus’ journey is about “more than just the protest at the Democratic Convention,” says Sanchez. “It’s about the broader work that we’ve been doing in the community.”
Mostly that has meant connecting with communities and activist groups along the way to Charlotte who have faced similar repression, a strategy that’s taken many forms. In Memphis, UnDocuBus riders like Angel Alvarez trained local activists to prevent ICE holds and other repressive police tactics. In New Orleans, riders rallied with activists like Joaquin Navarro-Hernandez who make up the Southern 32—a group of undocumented workers who face deportation for defending their civil rights. And in Alabama, they met with activists from the Civil Rights-era and symbolically crossed the infamous Edmund Pettus Bridge outside Selma.
For Sanchez, such boldness and solidarity is critical, but it undoubtedly carries risks. But that’s also very much the point. The trip began as four riders, including Cruz, were arrested for civil disobedience outside a courthouse in Phoenix where the infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio was being tried for racial profiling. Four more activists were arrested in Knoxville at a rally with local immigrant rights groups. Sanchez himself was detained for more than a month in Arizona last summer, an experience he says was dehumanizing but also showed him the need to “connect with the many diverse communities that have been affected by the immigration system.” That vision for unity has been at the heart of the UnDocuBus journey, as well as the broader immigrant movement for human rights.