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Website Yes, Legal Status, No: "No Papers, No Fear" Hopes to Build a Movement for Undocumented Immigrants

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Friday, August 31 2012

One of the riders of the Undocubus facing down a policeman. Photo courtesy of No Papers, No Fear

The online video shows a man in a white sweatshirt standing in a cavernous conference room, his arms aloft holding a banner. In the background, a voice drones over a tinny public-address system.

"I'm undocumented, and I'm not afraid," the man in the sweatshirt declares.

"Thank you, sir," says that voice off-camera, "please sit down." The voice then continues to discuss the thorny subject at hand: the civil rights impact of state immigration laws that make everyday life so difficult for people without legal status in this country that they self-deport.

Gerardo Torres is a 41-year-old undocumented immigrant and activist who's been living in Phoenix, Arizona for the past 19 years. He's one of the 41 immigrants -- both legal and illegal -- who have been traveling across the country on a 10-state bus tour designed to inspire undocumented immigrants living in fear. The group hopes to bring national attention to the people suffering the consequences of this country's immigration policy through carefully planned acts of civil disobedience, publicized through social media.

The event depicted in the video was a field hearing convened by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights earlier this month in Birmingham, Ala. The voice over the public address system belonged to Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, whom The Daily Beast has described as the "Deporter in Chief." Kobach is the legal mind behind Arizona's controversial SB 1070, a state law that made it a crime for immigrants not to carry their immigration documents with them at all times, and which also gave police broad powers to detain anyone they suspected to be in the country illegally. He's also worked with lawmakers in several other states to enact laws to crack down on illegal immigrants.

Organizers posted the stop-off in Birmingham on YouTube for the world to see in order to insert participants in the No Papers, No Fear trip, called "Undocubus," into a conversation about immigration in which undocumented immigrants themselves have until recently not been very active participants.

The YouTube video of Torres and his peers facing down the authors of some of the most controversial state-level laws targeting illegal immigrants is a prime example of the loose-knit group's organizing and media strategy. In particular, the individuals who designed the Web site and social media strategy say that they learned a lot organizing in the past couple of years against SB 1070, parts of which the Supreme Court struck down in June.

Under President Obama, 1.4 million people have been deported as of July, according to figures from Homeland Security's Department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Obama has said that his administration is focused on deporting criminals and "dangerous" illegal immigrants. Obama also announced a new policy in June that defers deportation proceedings against undocumented immigrants who are under 31, came here before the age of 16, who have lived in the United States for at least five years, are in school (or have a certificate proving that they had a high school education) and don't have a criminal record. But even for those immigrants who arrived here while they were still children, the policy is a reprieve, not a pardon. Seizing on a wave of public support that seemed to begin to crest last year, when Pulitzer Prize-winning former Washington Post and Huffington Post journalist Jose Antonio Vargas announced that he was not in this country legally, immigrants without legal status here are using the Internet to assert an American identity anyway, and that the problem lies not with them but with United States policy on immigration and citizenship.

By the time that the group rolls into Charlotte, N.C. on Saturday morning, the Undocubus riders will have a Web site that has documented their adventures, and features links to the dozens of stories, editorials and newscasts that have covered their activities at each stop: The group, whose ages range from 19 to 65, started their trip in Phoenix, Ariz., with a visit to the trial proceedings against Sheriff Joe Arpaio. (A group of Latinos have filed a civil suit against Arpaio accusing his officers of racial profiling. They say officers working for Arpaio pulled them over based on their race, to find out about their immigration status, without legitimate probable cause.) In Charlotte, the group intends to publicize its dissatisfaction with President Obama and the Democrats' record on immigration reform by raising a ruckus around the Democratic National Convention there. No Papers, No Fear will also hold workshops for local undocumented immigrants on subjects such as how to deal with deportation proceedings.

B. Loewe and Marco Loera, who are organizers at the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, built AltoArizona.com, a web site that was the precursor to the No Papers, No Fear site, and an action center that the activists are using to draw other interested people into the project.

"What we were trying to do with Alto Arizona, and what we’re definitely doing with No Papers, No Fear is creating a platform for undocumented people to speak for themselves," Loewe said in an interview. "Undocumented people have served as the background footage for intermediaries and for advocates to opinionate about the lives of undocumented people. When SB 1070 passed, everyone had an opinion about the state of Arizona -- we wanted to make sure that there was a place for the people of Arizona where they could have their opinion read, heard and seen."

And thus the YouTube video, which is one of dozens. Some of them feature members of the group explaining who they are, and why they are involved. Others feature footage of arrests. One of the videos was released after four members of the group were arrested in Knoxville, Tennessee for blocking traffic outside of the local Sheriff JJ Jones' office. The group was protesting the sheriff's application to work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to take on some immigration enforcement functions against people that they arrest and find to be illegal or undocumented immigrants.

One of those arrested was 19-year-old Alejandro Guizar, who is already facing deportation proceedings, and the other three were undocumented. The YouTube video, which was released online after they were arrested, featured Guizar saying that he's not afraid. At the end of it, a message urged viewers to call the sheriff's office to let the protestors go, and to call ICE and ask them not to work with the sheriff's office. The organizers also sent a message out on their Facebook page, which has more than 6,000 likes.

"Because we’ve been building an e-mail list, and a Facebook following and Twitter following, we’ve been able to mobilize support all across the country right away to call the sheriff and to tell him to let those people go, and to call ICE, and to tell them to have nothing to do with these people," Loewe said. "And all four of them were released by 10 p.m. that night."

Several calls and an e-mail to the sheriff's office to confirm Loewe's version of events were not returned at the time of this post.

So far, none of the shifting members of the group traveling on the bus has been sent over to ICE to be deported. And that is part of the point the activists are trying to make to their undocumented peers.

"We're trying to provide an example of how organizing can happen out of the shadows, and that even if you get arrested, if there's organizing behind you, you're not going to get deported," said Unzueta, the 28-year-old undocumented organizer on the bus with the Immigrant Youth Justice League. Unzueta was 10 when her parents brought her here. She lives in Chicago and has an undergraduate degree in sociology from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Both her parents and her sister are with her on the bus.

While its' difficult to gauge how successful the group has been in convincing undocumented immigrants that it's safe to take political action, the group has been garnering both print and television coverage where ever they go, and they even inspired a New York Times editorial.

"The No Papers, No Fear tour is doing two things: It's creating an example of fearlessness to inspire organizing within the migrant community to say we can't wait for anyone else, that the status quo is no longer tolerable," Loewe said. "By setting such an example of courage and bravery and sacrifice and risk -- here are undocumented people willing to never see their children again if they get arrested and deported -- we would hope that that sort of risk and bravery would inspire the politicians to do more."

Their long road will continue far beyond the bus trip. One new Facebook page recently established by Daniel Martin, an out-of-work electrician in Philadelphia, seems indicative. The name of the new page? "UndocuBus is a disgrace to America. Stop Illegal Immigration." The page doesn't seem to have received much traction, but Martin is just one voice out of a wider panoply of anti-immigrant groups, including some in Washington, D.C. that claim to be representing people like him.

He blames his state of employment partly on illegal immigrants, who he says fill up the work crews on construction sites. That makes life even more difficult for him since there isn't as much construction work to go around anymore, he said in an interview.

He says he's called ICE to complain about Undocubus.

"It doesn't matter that there's a large group of illegal aliens in the country," he said. "Just because they're a large group of people, it does not give them a voice, but they want to change the law in a country that they're not legally in."

This post has been updated to correct Mr. Martin's quote, and to correct the headline.